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New Anthrax Treatment Helps Even After Infection

The FDA approved a treatment to help anthrax victims even after they’ve started showing symptoms - a time that's typically too late to save patients.
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The Food and Drug Administration has okayed a treatment designed to help anthrax victims even after they’ve started showing symptoms — a time that’s usually too late for patients with the inhaled form of the infection.

The treatment, called Anthrasil, is made using antibodies from people who have been vaccinated against anthrax. It’s made by a Canadian company called Cangene, and it’s part of the U.S. stockpile of supplies for use in case of terrorist attacks.

Anthrax is a fairly common animal disease, but it can be particularly deadly when inhaled. The bacteria form spores that can hide out in the lungs and create infections long after exposure. Once people start to show symptoms it’s usually too late to treat it because the bacteria pump out toxins faster than the body can fight them off.

"The safety of the product was tested in 74 healthy human volunteers."

In 2001, five people died when they inhaled anthrax spores sent in the mail during the country’s worst bioterrorist attack. Another 17 people developed symptoms — mostly, less-harmful skin infections. Thousands more took antibiotics for weeks to prevent infection.

A scientist working at a government lab in Ft. Detrick, Maryland later committed suicide as the FBI homed in on him as the chief suspect in the attack.

Anthrax is considered a likely bioterrorism weapon. Health officials also want treatments on hand in case of lab accidents.

“To support the nation’s preparedness against a possible anthrax attack, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) purchased Anthrasil under Project BioShield in 2011 as an experimental drug for the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile,” the FDA said in a statement.

“Because Anthrasil was not approved, its use prior to today’s approval would have required an emergency use authorization from the FDA.”

The product uses antibodies that the body eventually produces to neutralize the anthrax toxin.

When tested in animals such as rabbits and monkeys, Anthrasil helps at least some of them survive a lethal dose of aerosolized anthrax. “Another study in rabbits showed that a combination of Anthrasil and antibiotics resulted in 71 percent survival compared to 25 percent survival in animals treated with antibiotics alone,” FDA said.

“The safety of the product was tested in 74 healthy human volunteers. The most commonly observed side effects were headache, back pain, nausea and infusion site pain and swelling,” FDA said.