Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2001 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bio-warfare (redux)

By Robert A. Wascher, M.D., F.A.C.S. -- THE Mayo Clinic has announced that they have developed a new DNA test for detection of the Anthrax bacillus. The test requires approximately an hour to perform, as compared to the several days that it currently takes to culture and identify the spores. This new test is further testament to the practical benefits to be derived from the unraveling of the DNA structure of both human and bacterial chromosomes.

The BBC's Hindi news service is reporting that Indian scientists are testing a new anthrax vaccine, and expect to begin animal and human trials very soon. The vaccine is composed of altered forms of the three proteins that, together, form the lethal toxin of the Anthrax bacillus. The alterations created in these three proteins may significantly reduce the side effects associated with the current American vaccine, while also leading to longer lasting immunity. The Indian team plans to formally present their vaccine research results at the American Society for Cell Biology's meeting in December.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before the Senate last week about potential public health risks that would follow an attack on America with the smallpox virus. While the US Government furiously works to develop a new vaccine against this dreaded viral disease, Dr. Fauci's agency is taking another look at the 30-plus year old stocks of vaccine currently in storage. Using volunteers, the agency plans to dilute sample doses from the stored vaccine stocks in order to determine the minimum effective dose necessary to protect people from smallpox. As I reported last week, the Federal Government now appears determined to resume immunization of the public against smallpox, nearly three decades after routine immunization was halted in the US.


UCLA neuroscientists have reported on research that appears to confirm longstanding suspicions about the link between brain size and IQ. Specifically, the UCLA study studied the hypothesis that the amount of the so-called "gray matter" in the brain is a key determinant of intelligence as measured by standard IQ tests. Using both identical and non-identical twins as study subjects, sophisticated brain scans were performed in addition to the administration of standardized IQ tests. Among each pair of genetically identical twins, the amount of gray matter present in the brain was much more consistent than was seen in the non-identical twin pairs. Moreover, standardized IQ tests showed a correlation between larger volumes of gray matter and increased IQ. Taken together, these results add evidence to suggest that people with larger amounts of gray matter in the brain appears to have higher IQs, and that gray matter volume appears to be under fairly strict genetic control.

The study does not, however, sort out cause-and-effects issues, as other IQ-related factors may be involved that occur in common with increased gray matter volume. Finally, the significance of standardized IQ test results has been debated for many years, and a less than stellar score on such tests do not always correlate with an individual's overall cognitive potential. This study does, however, add weight to previous speculation regarding the relationship between brain size and cognitive brain function, as well as to the previously suspected impact of inherited genes on intelligence.


Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a cousin of the disease that causes "mad cow" disease, is known to affect wild deer and elk in the US. Unlike the typical viruses and bacteria that cause most animal and human diseases, these two brain-wasting diseases are caused by the accumulation of small proteins (prions) that cause the gradual death of millions of brain cells in the infected animal. In the case of "mad cow" disease (or bovine spongiform encephalopathy [BSE], as it is scientifically known), the prions are now known to be able to cross the species barriers between cows and human, causing the human brain-wasting disease known as variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

This week's issue of the journal Science reports that a herd of domestic elk in Colorado has become infected with CWD. More disconcerting is the discovery that animal products from this infected herd have already been shipped to more than a dozen states. Elk meat is prized as a delicacy by many Americans, while the ground-up antlers are often sold to "alternative medicine" manufacturers for use in various supplements.

Although CWD has never been documented to spread from deer and elk to other domesticated food animal species, or to humans, this possibility cannot be categorically excluded either. More than 100 people have died in Europe (mostly in the United Kingdom) from variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease so far, with most cases linked to the consumption of contaminated beef products. Early in the course of the "epidemic" of this disease in Britain, much of the scientific community believed that the BSE prion could not successfully cross species barriers.

Canada has already closed its border to US deer and elk, and there is growing concern that the elk-raising industry may be devastated if this CWD outbreak cannot be expeditiously and completely eliminated at US elk farms.

JWR contributor Dr. Robert A. Wascher is a senior research fellow in molecular & surgical oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Dr. Robert A. Wascher