Llama Research Aids Defense Against Potential Bioweapon

FRIDAY, Jan. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Using proteins found in llamas, researchers have produced a way to simultaneously detect seven types of neurotoxins that cause botulism.

The toxins that cause botulism are extremely dangerous -- they're about 100 billion times more toxic than cyanide -- and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists them alongside anthrax, the Ebola virus and other agents on a list of the most serious bioterror threats.

According to Andrew Hayhurst, a virologist at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, and colleagues, the proteins from the llamas are antibodies, which play a role in the immune system as it fights off diseases. The researchers found that the so-called single domain antibodies, or nanobodies, can be used repeatedly to detect the neurotoxins and serve as detectors for some toxins that can't be spotted using generally available means.

In the study, published online in the Jan. 21 issue of the journal PLoS ONE, the researchers exposed a llama to harmless versions of the biotoxins and then worked with the antibodies created as the llama's immune system reacted.

"We are also striving to improve our test by making it more sensitive, such that one day it may be able to detect much smaller amount of toxins found in patients' blood," Hayhurst noted in a news release from the foundation.

The toxins, which are made by a kind of bacteria, can cause death when they're ingested. In many cases, they appear when food isn't properly stored. Botulism can cause paralysis, and it is difficult to treat or prevent through vaccines.

The research was funded by the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency Medical Diagnostics Program.

-- Randy Dotinga

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SOURCE: Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, news release, Jan. 20, 2010