Those of you who, like me, haven't been able to open a letter without an overwhelming sense of terror since 2001's anthrax attacks, will be relieved to hear that your very own immune system has a self-defense mechanism against the anthrax toxin that may buy enough time to make it to the hospital.
Anthrax is a scary and often deadly disease made even scarier by the fact that the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, specifically targets macrophages, immune cells that play a key role in protecting us from infection. By effectively shutting down our immune system, anthrax bacteria are free to spread unchecked throughout our bodies, releasing toxins that cause rapid cell death (soon followed by rapid person death).
Luckily, as reported in the June 22 issue of Immunity, the amazing immune system has developed a defense against even such a devastating attack. Scientists at UC-San Diego's School of Medicine have discovered that macrophages respond instantly to the anthrax toxin, using adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to communicate with other immune cells. Through a complex molecular circuit, ATP triggers release of a molecule called interleukin-1beta which, much like Paul Revere, gallops through the immune system warning other macrophages to strengthen their resistance against toxin-induced cell death.
A better understanding of the systems at play in this defense strategy may help scientists develop and improve treatments against anthrax and other nightmare-worthy pathogens.