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10/15/2013

Scientists discover a new botulism-causing toxin but will keep its genetic code a secret – for now

Clostridium_botulinum_01
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The world has learned a lot about botulism since the early 1800s, when the cause of the paralyzing disease was described as a "sausage poison" by Justinus Kerner, a German poet and medical officer.

Scientists now know that botulism isn't caused by sausages (thank goodness) but by toxins produced by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. They have created antitoxins to counteract the poison's dangerous effects but have also realized botulinum's potential as a deadly bioweapon. (Although the bacteria has never been used in combat, there are reports of it being sprayed over Canadian forests during World War II, an experiment that apparently killed all animals in the area within six hours).

And since the 70s, scientists have known about seven toxins produced by botulinum, identified with the letters A through G. But last week, California researchers revealed in two reports that they have now identified an eighth the first botulism-causing toxin to be discovered in 40 years.

The obvious problem now is that the new toxin, botulinum neurotoxin type H, does not yet have an effective antidote – meaning botulinum's potential as weapon of terror just got a lot more terrifying. As a result, the scientists who made the discovery, along with the publishing journal's editors, voluntarily decided to keep the toxin's genetic sequence a secret, at least for now.

The genetic code will eventually be published once the antitoxin is available. But as CIDRAP News reports, the move is extraordinarily rare within the scientific community, which considers research publication crucial to scientific progress.

But without an effective antidote, "both the strain itself and the sequence of this toxin ... pose serious risks to public health," wrote Dr. David A. Relman in an editorial accompanying the reports.

"The dilemma faced by these authors, and by society, revolves around the question, should all of the information from this and similar studies be fully disseminated, motivated by the desire to realize all possible benefits from the discovery, or should dissemination of some or all of the information be restricted, with the goal of diminishing the probability of misuse?"

As CIDRAP News notes, the "handling of the toxin discovery recalls the heated controversy" that first erupted in late 2011, when it was publicly revealed that two groups of scientists had engineered mutant strains of H5N1 in their labs to better understand the deadly bird flu virus.

That research triggered vigorous debate and new efforts to tighten the rules around publishing scientific findings that could be misused for nefarious purposes.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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