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Genetic basis for anthrax susceptibility in humans discovered by Stanford scientists

Anthrax toxin is a deadly poison. But it doesn't affect all people the same way. Research published today by Stanford geneticists Mikhail Martchenko, PhD; Sophie Candille, PhD; Hua Tang, PhD; and Stanley N. Cohen, MD, has shown that susceptibility is a genetic trait that is passed from parents to children. According to our release:

Among 234 people studied, the cells of three people were virtually insensitive to the toxin, while the cells of some people were hundreds of times more sensitive than those of others. The findings may have important implications for national security, as people known to be more resistant to anthrax exposure could be effective first-line responders in times of crises.


In the new study, Cohen and his colleagues found that variation in the level of expression of a gene that produces a cell-surface protein called CMG2 affects the success of the anthrax toxin in gaining entry into human cells. The research suggests that analogous effects may occur in people exposed to anthrax bacteria. The authors suggest that the investigational approach they used may be broadly applicable for learning about individual susceptibility to various pathogens in human populations.

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the United States Department of Defense. According to Alan Rudolph, PhD, the director of DTRA's Chemical and Biological Technologies Directorate:

This paper is an important contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms of host susceptibility to anthrax. We are committed to supporting outstanding science in this field and will seek opportunities to translate key discoveries such as this into useful applications in diagnostics and medical countermeasures for enhanced preparedness for the department of defense and global health security.

Previously: Human immune system has developed elegant self-defense against anthrax infection, Report questions whether U.S. is adequately prepared for future public health threats and Show explores scientific questions surrounding 2001 anthrax attacks
Photo of Martchenko by Steve Fisch

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