Anthrax research is about more than bioterrorism

Mark Coggeshall takes the idea of a bioterrorist attack very seriously. But he knows that sepsis, a deadly form of blood poisoning, is a bigger threat.

A scientist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Coggeshall, a Ph.D. who holds the Robert S. Kerr Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, studies the human immune response to anthrax bacteria as part of the National Institutes of Health’s Cooperative Centers for Human Immunology. He’s been doing anthrax research for 10 years and studying the innate immune system his entire career.

“People used to think that anthrax killed people by toxemia, or toxins in the blood,” he said. “We now know that it’s sepsis—an overwhelming reaction by the immune system to the toxins—that is lethal.”

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences estimates severe sepsis strikes about 750,000 Americans annually with a fatality rate between 28 and 50 percent.

Anthrax is still a concern, Coggeshall said. The bacteria can be found lying dormant in Oklahoma’s soil, and spores are easy to grow using the same equipment as a home beer brewer. Weaponizing anthrax is more difficult, but not impossible.

“I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t know anybody who does,” he said. “But I understand the threat.”

What scientists learn about anthrax and the immune system response to the bacteria will lead to breakthroughs that apply to more than just terrorist attacks, Coggeshall said.

“The insights we’ve gained will lead to new and better therapies for other types of sepsis and possibly other diseases,” he said. “That’s how research works. We keep digging and making basic discoveries, which pharmaceutical companies use to develop treatments.”

That’s vitally important for sepsis, Coggeshall said. By the time a patient shows up to the hospital with sepsis, it’s often too late. The body will destroy itself trying to get rid of bacteria.

“I hope our research can help if a bioterrorist attack occurs,” he said. “But I know what we’ve already discovered will be a benefit to the public for other bacterial diseases.”

Funding for the research is provided by grant No. 2U19AI062629-06 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the NIH.