ON THE FRONT LINES: The Burnham Institute goes to the molecular level to fight against bio-terrorism

A few years ago, hardly anyone worried about bio-terrorism. The term itself was obscure, a label attached to a set of circumstances that few believed would ever really materialize.

Things have changed.

Post Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of biological warfare and terrorism in the United States has metamorphosed from a bizarre conspiracy theory to a distinct possibility and even a tool for political spin. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have served to whip up public concern about the dark world of infectious diseases and biological warfare. Meanwhile, news about the spread of natural diseases such as SARS and West Nile Virus continues to make headlines the world over.

On the front lines of man's battle with deadly bacteria and viruses, scientists continue to struggle to understand the micro-mechanics of diseases that threaten human life. As viruses mutate over time, becoming more and more complex and dangerous, organizations such as La Jolla's Burnham Institute are running full-tilt to research and develop programs that might yield drugs that protect humans from these deadly diseases.

In fall 2001, The Burnham Institute's Dr. Robert Liddington had just sent a ground-breaking article to the scientific journal "Nature" for publication. After several years of study, Liddington and his team had finally completed the first stage of their work. They had completely mapped out the three-dimensional structure of the lethal factor of Anthrax, one of the world's most deadly and complicated toxins.

While Dr. Liddington's paper sat in the offices of "Nature" awaiting publication, a number of letters laden with anthrax spores were sent to the offices of media personalities and United States senators. The resulting furor, coming just weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, meant that Liddington's work was suddenly thrust into the public eye.

In a remarkable coincidence, the team's work had reached fruition at a time when the public and the government were just beginning to whet their appetite for information about biological weapons.

"We published about two weeks after the first people had died," said Liddington, a look of amused bewilderment crossing his face. "And, as far as I know, it was a complete coincidence."

Dr. John Reed, director and CEO of the Burnham Institute, was equally astounded by the turn of events.

"We've sort of just been in the right place at the right time," he said. "It was totally fortuitous. It was a seven-year project at that time that led up to fortuitously having the publication coming out right about the time the anthrax became a public issue."

The Burnham Institute has traditionally been concerned with cancer, aging and neuroscience research. Founded more than 20 years ago, the center has grown from a small group of researchers into a 500-strong faculty, including some 50 internationally renowned scientists and physicians. Ranked in the top dozen institutions of its kind in the world, the Burnham is one of only eight National Cancer Institute basic-science cancer centers in the country.

Earlier this year, the institute made the decision to formally expand infectious and inflammatory disease work into a third major branch of the organization. In conjunction with the purchase of a 35,000 square-foot property adjacent to the existing buildings, the director made the decision to codify the work of a number of existing programs into a new Center for Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases.

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