Veterinarian part of US-Russian collaboration on anthrax sensor

Stoltenow on team summoned for NATO presentation
Published on March 15, 2005
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Dr. Charles L. Stoltenow hasn't seen much of his Fargo, North Dakota, home lately.

In early February, the associate professor at North Dakota State University flew to Belgium as part of a U.S.-Russian team presenting its plans to a NATO committee for a highly sensitive detector able to perceive small yet lethal amounts of anthrax.

Later, in March, he was off to Beijing to work on increasing China's dairy production, with a possible stopover in Mongolia to suggest ways of standardizing the country's veterinary regulations.

"Veterinary medicine is an incredibly wonderful profession that allows you the opportunities to do a lot of different things," Dr. Stoltenow, a member of the AVMA House Advisory Committee, said shortly after his return from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

NATO is an alliance of 26 countries from North America and Europe established in 1949 to check the threat of the Soviet Union.

Dr. Stoltenow first started working with Russian scientists in 2001, not long after Sept. 11. He was part of the National Academies' National Research Council efforts to team U.S. scientists with biologic warfare experts from former Soviet countries to collaborate on peaceful projects.

In a similar vein, the NATO Science for Peace program supports applied research and development projects in partner nations with the assistance of colleagues from among NATO members. The aim of some projects is enhancing or creating ways of detecting chemical, biologic, or radiologic nuclear weapons or agents.

For the past four years, Dr. Stoltenow has been sole veterinarian on a team of American and Russian scientists working to develop a cutting-edge anthrax sensor. He is the team's co-director and a consultant, along with Eric Garber, PhD, of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Dr. Stoltenow is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine and teaches in NDSU's Department of Animal and Range Sciences. He was recruited to the team because of his knowledge of anthrax. North Dakota is endemic for the deadly bacteria, he said, adding that 12 cattle tested positive for anthrax infection last October.

The federal government has classified anthrax as a category A infectious disease, making the bacterium an ideal biologic weapon. Anthrax spores can easily be disseminated and cause high mortality rates.

The highly sensitive detector is needed to determine when an actual attack using anthrax occurs. Existing DNA-based, rapid tests for anthrax cannot distinguish anthrax bacteria from a hoax agent, according to Dr. Stoltenow. He explained that bacteria could be genetically engineered to produce an antigen similar enough to anthrax as to fool existing sensors.

Confirming the true nature of the agent can currently take as long as a week. In the meantime, public panic ensues and the social order is disrupted. Recall the chaos stemming from the anthrax-laced letters mailed to members of the Senate in 2001.

The project takes advantage of cutting edge technology—fluorescence resonance energy transfer—that has the potential of detecting miniscule amounts of anthrax spores, as small as 1 PPB. "To my knowledge, no one else has developed anything along these lines, especially dealing with anthrax," Dr. Stoltenow said. The research could lead to the creation of a molecular compound able to actually inhibit lethal anthrax, he stated.

During the Feb. 10 presentation at NATO, a panel of specialists in chemistry, biology, and physics questioned the U.S.-Russian team about their progress. Some of the panelists asked especially tough questions of the Russian scientists, according to Dr. Stoltenow. He surmised that the panelists from the former Soviet satellite states were enjoying the advantages of their respective countries' membership in NATO.

Along with enhancing biosecurity, a goal of the NATO Science for Peace program is to spur economic development by producing a detector that could be sold outside Russia. "Research money in the former Soviet states is extremely scarce," Dr. Stoltenow observed. "You'd hate to have all these bright minds running around with nothing to occupy their time."

The detector still has a ways to go, and it isn't entirely clear when or if it will be completed. But Dr. Stoltenow remains hopeful about its chances. He has also been working on similar projects with the Civilian Research and Defense Foundation in Virginia.

"My thinking on all this is simple," he said. "Can we make the world a safer place?"