New Delhi: The annual Visitor’s Award for innovation at the ongoing ‘Festival of Innovation’ being held at Rashtrapati Bhavan has gone to a scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who has developed a vaccine and therapeutic antibody against the deadly disease anthrax.

Anthrax features among the top 10 diseases affecting livestock in India, often leading to an epidemic. It is also one of the most potent bio-weapons, used last in 2001 in the US, weeks 9/11 attacks.

In India, anthrax has been reported in eighteen states, the worst affected being Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, West Bengal and Assam.

Prof Rakesh Bhatnagar of the School of Biotechnology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, bagged the award for developing a therapeutic antibody to neutralise the most lethal form of anthrax infection—inhalational anthrax.

The antibody acts against the two toxins of Bacillus Anthracis, namely lethal toxin and edema toxin which are responsible for death and edema in animals and humans. This antibody neutralises the toxins and flushes them out from the body via excretion.

Inhalational anthrax is fatal because after inhaling the spores, they go to the lungs and multiply, subsequently producing large amounts of toxins. By the time symptoms like high fever and difficulty in breathing appear, death becomes certain.

“Three proteins of Bacillus anthracis – protective antigen (PA), lethal factor (LF) and edema factor (EF) are majorly responsible for the disease anthrax. When either LF or EF combines with PA, they form toxins which can cause death. Combination of LF and PA is the most dangerous as it kills the infected cells in the body, while EF and PA combine to cause edema," said Bhatnagar. Edema is a condition in which excess fluid collects in cavities and tissues of the body.

“The most important part of our innovation is that through one antibody we can fight both the toxins. It is called a bispecific antibody, which is a rarity in scientific discoveries. In 2004, a student under my supervision discovered a sequence of seven amino acids on the proteins of EF and LF which was exactly the same. We understood that this is the part of protein, against which we have to develop an antibody," said Bhatnagar. This specific feature of his research made it a strong contender among entries from all the 40 central universities of the country.

His previous research had shown that PA, if left alone, acts like a vaccine, i.e. it prevents anthrax infection in future. This added another significant feature in his innovation. “Our antibody does two things – it flushes out two toxic molecules from the system, and protects the beneficial molecule. Our antibody leaves PA untouched, helping the body to develop immunity against the disease" said Bhatnagar. He said the antibody, combined with antibiotics to fight the bacterial infection, can potentially save most of the individuals infected with the lethal bacteria. This will ensure that anthrax is no more a threat in biological warfare.

So far, antibody efficacy tests in mice have been successful. “We saved 66% of mice with our antibody, which was a good success rate considering the fatality attached with the disease. When we combined antibody with antibiotics, we could save all the mice experimented upon," said Bhatnagar. Now, he is working towards humanizing this antibody that worked in mice which will be followed by human clinical trials so that eventually this antibody may become a choice of treatment.

The innovation is a team effort. Bhatnagar, who has worked for over two decades on anthrax, has been assisted by many students at various points of development of the antibody.

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