Editor's Note: Science Scan is a roundup of recently published biotechnology-relevant research.

"Mixing smallpox with SARS - severe acute respi0ratory syndrome - can mean a severe threat to humankind."

That's what Benedikt Sas, the general manager of Kemin Pharma, told BioWorld Today in an interview from the firm's location in Herentals, Belgium. "We signed an agreement in October 2003 with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases [USAMRIID] in Fort Detrick, Md.," he announced. "Under its terms, USAMRIID will screen Kemin Pharma's library of carbohydrate-based small molecules for effective action against both SARS and smallpox," Sas continued. "Our first shipment went out a week ago.

"Kemin Pharma has developed a library of proprietary, carbohydrate-based, bicyclic small molecules," Sas said. "Our internal screenings have identified several novel, highly active and selective viral leads effective against cytomegalovirus, hepatitis C virus and herpes simplex virus. By collaborating with USAMRIID, our new molecules will be screened for two additional diseases that also have worldwide implications," he added. "USAMRIID is the Defense Department's lead laboratory for medical aspects of biological warfare defense.

"Although its primary mission is to protect members of the U.S. military, the research programs it conducts have applications that benefit society as a whole," Sas observed. "USAMRIID investigates naturally occurring infectious diseases that require special containment. Its investigators actively contribute to advances in scientific knowledge and collaborate with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as well as with the World Health Organization. Our mission here at Kemin Pharma is to develop new, unique, antimicrobial compounds effective against bacteria, viruses and fungi, as well as protozoa, which present a serious, unmet medical challenge throughout the world," Sas concluded.

Kemin's Iowa Outpost Takes Antimicrobials From Salamanders To Defend From Bioterror

"I'm president of Kemin Industries," said biochemist/biophysicist Chris Nelson in Des Moines, Iowa. "Kemin Pharma is a division of Kemin Industries. Regarding the October agreement between Benedikt Sas and the U.S. military," Nelson said, "we've been doing a variety of work on antimicrobials. Kemin has been doing work with antimicrobials for years. We came across a whole stream of molecules, looking like very interesting antimicrobials. Instead of putting them directly into the food business, we look at them as pharmaceuticals.

"In regard to this collaboration between the U.S. military and Kemin Pharma," Nelson went on, "the American military has had a use for antimicrobials, especially to put down some of these threatening agents that terrorists are using. What we've been able to do is generate a unique set of antimicrobials to test against some of those biological weapons that the military is worried about because they might be used against U.S. civilians or war troops. I know anthrax was one of them.

"In the pharmaceutical business, also in biotech," Nelson noted, "not too many companies have been looking at antimicrobial agents. It's been a sort of abandoned area. We're an example of a company that has seen opportunities within the antimicrobial area and are now actively exploring molecules that can be used as such. We had been going a little bit against the trends of the past few years by getting away from antimicrobials, and now we're venturing back into them.

"We have a couple of sources of lead molecules we're grooming, but one of the most interesting sources is a collaborative arrangement with a company called Plethodonts. It's the scientific name for a family of salamanders. Plethodonts are interesting because they are animals with no lungs. They have to breath by absorbing oxygen across their skin. To do this they keep their skin moist and go running around in the ground. That way they generate some antimicrobials to keep themselves from being infected with all the bacteria and fungus that infest the ground.

"This plethodontal company discovered that salamanders harbor a whole series of symbiotic bacteria that actually live on the skin surface. And these secrete antimicrobials that keep the animals from getting infected. We're isolating those bacteria and the antimicrobials that those bacteria are fighting off. They're among the sources of our lead molecules," Nelson concluded.

Simple Blood Test Of SMR (Detecting Affected Lung Tissue) Spares Patients From Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly neoplasm (2,000 cases a year in the U.S.), which arises from the living cells of the pleura. These tissues envelope the lungs. Mesothelioma often is caused by long-term exposure to asbestos, and aggravated by too much heavy smoking. Preliminary results of a study in The Lancet proposes a blood test to identify people with mesothelioma. Dated Nov. 15, 2003, The Lancet article bears the title "Mesothelin-family proteins and diagnosis of mesothelioma."

Lead author Bruce Robinson at the Gardner hospital in Perth, Australia, and co-authors perfected the test to assess blood concentrations of proteins expressed in mesothelioma cells. Their test yielded a high level of specific detection of mesothelioma cells (37 of 44 patients, or 84 percent), compared with three of 160 patients (2 percent) with other cancers, and with none of 28 controls who had not been exposed to asbestos.

"On the basis of our data," Robinson commented, "we propose that measurements of SMR (soluble mesothelin-related protein) concentrations in serum is a useful adjunct in the diagnosis of mesothelioma. Blood SMR concentrations should be monitored in asbestos-exposed individuals who are at risk of developing the disease to determine if early therapeutic intervention improves patients' outcomes.

"Importantly," Robinson added, "for the hundreds of thousands of asbestos-exposed people who are at risk of this cancer, the test can detect the tumor several years before it presents. Of seven asbestos-exposed individuals who had increased blood concentrations of SMR, three developed mesothelioma and one suffered lung cancer within one to five years, whereas none of the 33 asbestos-exposed participants whose blood samples had normal SMR readings developed mesothelioma in that time period."