Finding link to anthrax, professor set NAU apart

December 17, 2007

By hammersmith

[Source: Anne Ryman, The Arizona Republic] – One of the world’s foremost anthrax researchers toils in a cramped, windowless lab at Northern Arizona University.

Inside a locked room only a few can enter, he and his research team study germs so dangerous that the U.S. government considers them top bioterror threats.It was here that Professor Paul Keim made a significant discovery: the 2001 anthrax letter attack on a Florida photo editor came from a genetic strain identical to one developed in U.S. government labs. The finding led the FBI to rule out foreign terrorist attacks in the jittery days after Sept. 11. The FBI called the anthrax letters the worst biological attacks in U.S. history.

Keim’s anthrax analysis catapulted his career from niche researcher to the equivalent of a scientific rock star and shone a new light on NAU. His grant funding skyrocketed from less than $1 million to about $8 million a year, and his research on more-common diseases expanded. Soon he will have a new lab to match his world-renowned status. He and his team of 50 researchers are moving into the top floor of a $25 million three-story, glass-and-brick building billed as one of the most energy-efficient in Arizona. The lab space is more than triple what they have now. The building’s most talked-about feature, besides the fact it will house anthrax, is the use of recycled blue jeans to insulate the walls. NAU needed to build the lab because of the increased biodefense research workload and more federal safety and security restrictions since 2001.

Keim, 52, has come a long way in six years. In early 2001, he had 25 researchers for his various projects and was among a handful of U.S. scientists who worked on Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that lives in soil and causes anthrax disease. The lethal germ is considered a top bioterror threat because even a tiny amount of spores, smaller than the head of a pin, can kill if lodged in the lungs.

Keim was well-known in genomics circles, a scientific field that studies genes and their function. In the late 1990s, he and a colleague, Paul Jackson, pioneered a DNA fingerprinting technique to distinguish among the various anthrax strains. The finding revolutionized anthrax research but stopped short of elevating him to the ranks of famous scientists who transcend their fields. Everything changed six years ago when doctors diagnosed Bob Stevens, a photo editor of the supermarket tabloid the Sun, with anthrax.

Fateful call

On the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2001, Keim was in his office when the telephone rang. On the other end was an FBI agent, who told him a plane was on its way to Flagstaff from Atlanta with a culture taken from Stevens’ spinal fluid. The FBI wanted Keim to analyze the DNA and find out what type of anthrax Stevens had contracted. This could provide possible clues to where the anthrax originated. Keim broke into a sweat, and his hands tingled. He had expected the call. The FBI knew his reputation, and his NAU lab had the world’s largest database of about 2,000 anthrax strains. Four hours later, Keim jumped into his 1990 Toyota 4Runner and made the 15-minute drive to Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport. The setting sun painted the sky red as the small FBI plane landed. A door swung down, and a blond woman stepped out with a cardboard box in her hands.”This is the anthrax,” she said. The plane and the blonde brought to Keim’s mind visions of a famous movie and a moment of humor in an otherwise serious situation. “I’m like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca,” he thought.

The agents filled out paperwork, then handed the box to Keim, who placed it in the back of his 4Runner and drove back to his lab. A glass tube nestled in ice held the culture from Stevens’ body. Keim and a couple of his key researchers worked through the night, isolating, processing and magnifying the DNA using machines and computers similar to ones found in crime labs. In the early morning, they compared the results with their anthrax database. They found a match: a virulent type called the Ames strain. The U.S. Army developed the lab strain in the 1980s as a test for the anthrax vaccine.Keim outlined his results the next morning in a conference call with the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The media knew nothing of Keim’s analysis. Then a few days later, a Florida U.S. attorney held a news conference on the anthrax investigation and said the FBI had sent samples for analysis to NAU. Within 90 minutes, television satellite trucks pulled up and news crews tried to push into his lab. University officials posted 24-hour guards and rushed to install extra locked doors. Hundreds of news reporters left messages on his voice mail. A producer from the Oprah Winfrey Show wanted to have a camera in the lab when Keim discovered who committed the anthrax attacks. “I knew I had made the big time when Oprah Winfrey called,” Keim said. He gave no interviews, based on advice from the FBI, which worried that revealing details could jeopardize the investigation and could make him a potential target of whoever committed the crimes. He snuck in and out of his lab using various doors to avoid the media and stopped answering his telephone. He even had a stalker. A woman, convinced she had contracted anthrax, left messages on his voice mail and showed up outside the building. She wanted him to cure her. She called him once from the waiting room of a doctor’s office in Prescott, adding “but I still want to see you, Dr. Keim.”

Growing reputation

As the FBI investigation progressed, Keim gave limited interviews and confirmed his help to the government. The FBI sent more cultures for analysis. The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal featured him on their front pages. He spoke before Congress during terrorism hearings. His sudden fame gave a new prominence to NAU, the smallest of Arizona’s state universities and the least research-intensive of the three. In the university world, famous scientists lead to more research grants and enhanced prestige. Star scientists help draw other high-ranking scientists and students. “As far as the biosciences go, Paul put NAU on the map, and he continues to do so,” said David Engelthaler, a former state epidemiologist who has known him for a decade. Keim stayed down-to-earth with his sudden fame, Engelthaler said. He could talk to top scientists one day and fit in with regular folk at a community event the next day.

Keim’s higher profile had an important side benefit for Flagstaff’s economy. In addition to his work at NAU, Keim since 2003 has been director of pathogen genomics at the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen. The non-profit organization opened a new facility, TGen North, in Flagstaff in 2006, and it has grown to employ 14 people. “In a sense, he’s an economic-development agent all by himself,” NAU President John Haeger said. Yet even as his national reputation grew, he and other researchers faced questions. Investigators speculated that whoever committed the attacks had access to Bacillus anthracis and an intimate knowledge of how the pathogen worked.Scientists came under scrutiny.

The bacterium that causes anthrax is rare. The average person’s chances of coming into contact are slim. Anthrax is far more common in animals, and human cases often come from people handling infected animal hides. The anthrax-spiked letters, which sickened 22 and killed five Americans, had been “weaponized.” Someone had concentrated the bacterial spores to make them easier to inhale and more lethal. Some mornings, Keim talked to FBI agents about his anthrax analysis. Then in the afternoons, other agents interviewed him about his whereabouts before the attacks. Keim had an alibi. He had been in Arizona, far from the East Coast where the letters were postmarked.

He, like many others, wondered who did it.One night he woke up as his mind raced through possible suspects. He reported his suspicion to the FBI. “They evidently investigated this person, and it wasn’t him,” Keim said. He declines to say whom he suspected. More than six years after the crime, the FBI has made no arrests.

Research continues

Keim’s current lab is in the locked wing of a science building. “You might as well smile for the camera; they’re recording you,” Keim tells visitors as they go through several locked doors.A sign outside the lab that says “Molecular genetics” hints at the important science going on behind closed doors. Inside, machines hum. Undergraduate students in white lab coats prepare anthrax DNA samples for analysis. Students sit at banks of computers where they read and interpret DNA analysis from the machines. The number of researchers in Keim’s lab has doubled since 2001, and their research into other pathogens has expanded. Keim also has a second lab through TGen North near the Flagstaff airport. Keim walks through the NAU lab dressed more like a business executive on a semi-casual day than a scientist, in his chocolate blazer and tan slacks and a blue dress shirt. His schedule is a blur. The previous day he spoke at a biodefense meeting in Boston. On this morning, he gave Arizona legislators a tour of his lab. In two days, he leaves for Thailand, where he has a project with melioidosis, a lethal infectious disease found in Southeast Asia and northern Australia.

Since 2001, his research on other common diseases has expanded. His various projects read like an encyclopedia of illness and disease: valley fever, the staph “superbug,” tuberculosis, salmonella, E. coli, plague, sepsis, pneumonia. One grant is aimed at developing DNA fingerprinting for all bacterial pathogen threats. It’s not science for science’s sake. Faster identification of life-threatening illnesses means doctors can diagnose and treat patients earlier. This year, Keim and his research team got a U.S. patent for a new method to identify various strains of the tuberculosis-causing bacterium. He has similar patents pending for salmonella and E. coli. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used his technology to track the recent California spinach E. coli outbreaks. The anthrax attacks created a sort of “war dividend” for public health, Keim said, as scientists use labs and instruments developed for biodefense to also study common diseases.”The improvements in public health would never have occurred without the ‘anthrax letter’ attacks,” he said.

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