Saturday, November 13, 2004

U.S. Tapping Into Former Russian Biowarfare Scientists

08:52 AM Jun. 08, 2004 PT
Weapons Makers Turn to Medicine
By Kristen Philipkoski

SAN FRANCISCO -- A little more than a decade ago, Amir Maksyutov was developing virulent strains of influenza and other infectious agents for potential use as bioweapons against the United States. Today, he's working on vaccines for HIV, flu and malaria.
Maksyutov is happy to be one of the scientists taken under the wing of the United States since the Soviet Union fell. After the Cold War, when Russia employed brilliant scientists to create vats of super-virulent infectious agents, many of those researchers were out of jobs.
Lest the researchers go to work for its enemies, the United States developed programs to collaborate with former Soviet scientists.
"(Developing medicine) feels much better than to destroy," Maksyutov said through an interpreter here Monday at the Biotechnology Industry Organization annual conference. "Now, our potential is so strong that we can develop many new medications."
Maksyutov is a scientist at the Vector State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in the Novosibirsk region in Siberia, where he says bears walk in the streets. Everyone in the town, he said, is somehow affiliated with the research center, which was once a facility for producing the most dangerous pathogens on Earth.
Its transformation into a medical facility is one of several successful collaborations between the U.S. government and Russian scientists.
"There is so much talent and human capital in Russia," said Jeffrey Gelfand, senior adviser of international medical affairs at Massachusetts General Hospital, who works with the State Department Bioindustry Initiative on establishing research projects in Russia. "At one point, years ago, it was being misspent, and it's so exciting to put them on track to help mankind."
Garland said Russian researchers often approach projects in ways that Americans wouldn’t think of. Maksyutov, for example, figured out that there are 46,000 different ways in which HIV could mutate in order to evade a vaccine. He developed a vaccine that can provide a counterpunch to each one of those 46,000 mutations.
"Our dogma would have said it can't work," Gelfand said. But in rabbits the vaccine did work, and the State Department will support further tests.
Dr. Vsevolod Kiselev is another former bioweapons researcher who has been transformed into a medical miracle worker. Kiselev is now developing a vaccine to fight human respiratory papilloma, or HPV, as head of the biotechnology laboratory at the Research Institute of Molecular Medicine in Moscow. HPV causes warts in the respiratory tract of infants and can cause breathing problems or even death. With funding from the State Department, Kiselev not only developed the vaccine, but also a whole new technology for making vaccines.
"Vaccines are usually weak and cannot give good protection," Kiselev said. "I developed a technology that significantly improved the protection level -- a small amount of the compound can give a high level of protection with no side effects."
The vaccine is in its early stages. Once it's tested in animals, the technology could potentially be translated to other types of vaccines, Kiselev said.
Despite these advances, it's not likely that the United States has managed to lure every former Soviet bioweapons scientist. Funding from the United States has helped prevent bioweapon proliferation, but more efforts are needed, he said. Maksyutov worries that "laboratories not friendly towards mankind" will develop bioweapons in the next five to 10 years.
"The level of biotech now is so high that it's possible to create new, very dangerous viruses such as modified flu viruses," Maksyutov said. "The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 would look like nothing. Those potentially dangerous viruses need to be under tight control."
Maksyutov is also studying the function and structure of the flu virus to try to develop a vaccine.
"It’s very clear to me how to make the virus more virulent," Maksyutov said. "Unfortunately it's really very simple."