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Release: July 13, 1999

UI researchers receive grant to study potential biowarfare countermeasure

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Technological advances make it increasingly likely that U.S. military personnel might face biological warfare. However, medical advances may help protect troops or even civilians exposed to infectious or deadly agents such as anthrax or viruses that cause encephalitis (brain inflammation).

As part of an effort to develop biowarfare protective countermeasures, University of Iowa Health Care researchers, in conjunction with several other institutions, have received a two-year, $4.4 million grant from the Unconventional Pathogen Countermeasures Program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The agency, which is the central research and development organization for the U.S. Department of Defense, has developed technology for projects including the Internet and stealth fighter. Arthur M. Krieg, M.D., UI professor of internal medicine, is leading the study on how to use CpG DNA, a short sequence of engineered DNA, to activate people's innate immune system.

"Vaccines offer some protection against biological agents, but someone could easily develop a mutated microorganism that the vaccine won't cover," Krieg said. "Our study looks at another strategy -- how to activate the human innate immune system so the body can withstand infectious challenges that would normally be lethal."

In previous studies, Krieg and other UI researchers discovered that CpG DNA could activate the immune system in mice and give them extraordinary immune protection. The injected synthetic CpG DNA "tricks" the immune systems of mice into thinking they are being invaded by germs. In response, the protective immune defenses in the mice are immediately activated. The mice are then better protected when they subsequently encounter any of a wide variety of real pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites.

Krieg said this preactivation of the immune defenses might also protect humans against exposure to infectious biological agents for one to four weeks.

"The innate immune system is not activated at all times because maintaining it requires so much of the body's energy," Krieg said. "But if CpG DNA could be administered to help activate the immune system a day or so in advance of possible exposure to pathogens, giving it a head start could make the difference between life or death."

The UI-led study includes investigators at the University of Texas at Galveston, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., CpG ImmunoPharmaceuticals in Wellesely, Mass., and Hilden, Germany, and the Leonard Wood Memorial Research Center in Rockville, Md.

"We know that terrorists have the tools to develop extremely harmful agents for potential use in biological warfare," Krieg said, "so President Clinton has charged various organizations to come up with strategies to defend against it. Based on our results in mice, we think that CpG DNA may be a profoundly effective way to activate the body's natural immune defenses to provide a broad-spectrum protection against biowarfware."