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Science and Innovations

NAU Scientists Track Anthrax-Tainted Heroin in Europe

Melissa Sevigny

Scientists at Northern Arizona University are studying an anthrax outbreak among heroin users in Europe.

They sequenced the genomes of sixty anthrax samples from infected heroin users, following an outbreak of the potentially deadly disease. More than 100 people fell ill with “injectional anthrax” in Scotland in 2009 and 2010 and sporadic cases continue throughout Europe.  

Health officials assumed the outbreak was related to a single batch of heroin contaminated with the bacteria that causes anthrax. Now, DNA analysis shows at least two contamination events took place.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Bayer demonstrates preparing a sample in the laboratory.

“That provides some urgency to it,” says Paul Keim, director of NAU’s Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, and a researcher at TGen North in Flagstaff. “You can’t just ignore this event as a one-off event that’s never going to happen again. It is going to happen again.”

Credit CDC Public Health Image Library
Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax

Keim says traditional methods of tracking diseases wouldn’t work in this case. The two disease clusters appeared in the same regions and overlapped in time. Only by sequencing entire genomes could the researchers find subtle differences in DNA. 

“If it was fast food restaurant that had an E. coli or norovirus contamination, then we would be able to track back where they got their lettuce, where they got their hamburger,” Keim said. “In this case you can’t do that, so this tool becomes one of the few that you have to track it down.”  

Keim thinks a likely explanation is contamination from water at the source of the heroin production.

The study appeared in the November issue of EBioMedicine.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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