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Medicine Science

Researcher Dies After Studying Plague Bacteria 143

Posted by Soulskill
from the scientists-need-hazard-pay dept.
Malcolm J. Casadaban, a molecular genetics professor at the University of Chicago, died last Sunday, seemingly from an infection of a weakened form of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes the plague. "Because this form of the bacteria is not known to cause problems in healthy people, special safety procedures are not required to handle it, said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, a virologist and chief of pediatric infections at the U. of C. Medical Center. Lab researchers who work with the bacteria would typically wear gloves, a lab coat and protective goggles, and the bacteria would be disposed of in a biohazard bag and heated for about two hours, Alexander said. Two key questions in Casadaban's death will be whether there was anything different about the strain of bacteria he was handling and whether Casadaban had any underlying conditions that may have made him more susceptible to infection."
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Researcher Dies After Studying Plague Bacteria

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:18AM (#29483277)

    Man, we're so screwed now. This is like a movie. Who knows who he had contact with? It probably morphed in some way and now it's going to sweep the globe wiping out most of the population. :(

    • Re:We're screwed (Score:4, Informative)

      by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:22AM (#29483295) Homepage
      If I understand correctly, the plague wasn't transmitted from human to human, but rather from lice to humans. Since lice are nowhere near as prevalent as they used to be, you don't normally have to fear an outbreak.
      • Re:We're screwed (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:26AM (#29483315)

        Fleas->Rats ->Fleas->Humans

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          Fleas->Rats ->Fleas->Humans

          Human Flees Rats

        • I have been saved by the fall.

          My pets had the most awful flea infestation ever this year, that would not yeild to poison of any kind!!! If there had been plague going around then it would have killed all my pets and probably my whole family ( if there were not antibiotics ).

          I would give the animals flea shampoos ( which is not easy for cats! ) every three days. I also bought flea powders, flea coat sprays, Frontline, and other brands of flea drops that are supposed to work for thirty days. Let me tell

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If I understand correctly, the plague wasn't transmitted from human to human, but rather from lice to humans. Since lice are nowhere near as prevalent as they used to be, you don't normally have to fear an outbreak.

        Not necessarily. [amazon.com]

        The author makes a convincing argument that the Black Death was actually spread by droplet based transmission.

        • Re:We're screwed (Score:5, Informative)

          by rve (4436) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @12:07PM (#29483549)

          If I understand correctly, the plague wasn't transmitted from human to human, but rather from lice to humans. Since lice are nowhere near as prevalent as they used to be, you don't normally have to fear an outbreak.

          Not necessarily. [amazon.com]

          The author makes a convincing argument that the Black Death was actually spread by droplet based transmission.

          The plague never went away. Even after the last pandemic, people still have been contracting the plague. Yersinia pestis is still endemic among rodents in Europe, Asia and the USA. Small outbreaks, with the exact same symptoms still occur today from time to time. The history of this disease is extremely well documented, and not at all controversial.

          When the infection reaches the lungs it's called Pneumonic plague, it spreads via droplets and is extremely contageous. When it infects the lymph nodes, it's called Bubonic plague. It's the same disease, just in a different organ. When the infection reaches the blood, it's called Septic Plague.

          It's not as dangerous now, because we don't commonly share our homes with rodents and lice anymore, and with prompt treatment with antibiotics, the prognosis is decent.

          Now I haven't read that book that you linked to, so I don't know what arguments they make, but a hypothesis that states that the black death was a different disease with the exact same symptoms as a very well known and documented disease that still occurs today seems needlessly complicated to me.

          • Re:We're screwed (Score:5, Interesting)

            by gyrogeerloose (849181) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @12:20PM (#29483607) Journal

            Yersinia pestis is still endemic among rodents in Europe, Asia and the USA.

            That's true. In fact, most public campgrounds here in California have signs warning of plague danger and advising people to keep their distance from ground squirrels, which are known carriers of the yersinia pestis bacterium.

          • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

            by Runaway1956 (1322357)

            "seems needlessly complicated to me."

            Occam, is that you? I still want my razor back!! I didn't GIVE it to you, I only LOANED IT!! Why does the whole world think that it's YOUR RAZOR?????

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by mabhatter654 (561290)

            The key is antibiotic as much as anything.

            Middle ages folks had very little concept of contagion prevention.. germs weren't even discovered for a few hundred more years. I'd think that perhaps the middle ages plague was a combination of nasty things.. remember, it wasn't one "great plague" but a series of famines and pandemics over 50-75 years, peaking every 10-15 years killing 25%-50% of towns. The ones that survived benefited two-fold. First they passed on natural immunity to our generations that helps

            • by noundi (1044080)

              ... and second they were suffering effects of extreme overpopulation...

              The parallel between Malthusian limit and the plague is very vague. To simply assume that the deaths of millions of Europeans caused by a disease spread from central Asia is due to overpopulation is a prime example of fallacy of the single cause [wikipedia.org].

              While I don't disagree entirely with the concept of Malthusian limit, I do however strongly doubt that it is related to this.

            • by bendodge (998616)

              First they passed on natural immunity to our generations that helps slow the spread...

              Wait, acquired characteristics aren't passed on to offspring. I don't see how this could be.

              • by koxkoxkox (879667)

                It is not acquired, it is just that if some of the people have this immunity, it is more likely they will have kids.

                • Not necessarily immunity, but resistance. Some factor that helps the person live long enough to produce offspring.

                  Also, antibodies are passed through breastmilk, so some acquired traits can be passed directly to the next generation.

                • it's called natural selection bitches. It's not "acquired" it was already there and chance happens that some people resist the disease because of a certain gene and the weaker ones are "culled" from the herd.

              • by Camann (1486759)
                This isn't genetic. The blood of the mother and child are shared before birth, thus antibodies are passed on through blood.
                • it's genetic... just like breeding LOL cats with spots instead of stripes. Some gene make people just a "little bit more" resistant to some germ meaning they don't die when somebody else does.

                  • by Camann (1486759)
                    Okay, genetics helps of course, but the point is that genetics doesn't change over the course of a person's life in order to make him/her resistant to a disease. Either it's there from conception or it's not; however, acquired resistances throughout life [wikipedia.org] are passed from mother to child as well through blood pre-birth and breast milk post-birth.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            Now I haven't read that book that you linked to, so I don't know what arguments they make, but a hypothesis that states that the black death was a different disease with the exact same symptoms as a very well known and documented disease that still occurs today seems needlessly complicated to me.

            "Needlessly complicated"? Remember, you're talking to a bunch of people who recently thought spending an entire weekend compiling Gentoo was perfectly normal behavior.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by tomhudson (43916)

        Since lice are nowhere near as prevalent as they used to be,

        Sales of Rid and Nix, which increase every fall with the new school year starting up and winter coming, disagree. Lice are still plentiful.

      • by khallow (566160)
        As another poster notes, it's transmission from rats to fleas to humans (or more rats). And there is a particularly lethal variant of the plague that is airborne and spreads directly from human to human.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by gyrogeerloose (849181)

      now it's going to sweep the globe wiping out most of the population.

      You say that as if it's a bad thing...

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      Except Madagascar.
  • by s4m7 (519684) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:19AM (#29483283) Homepage
    when he rises from the dead, will he spread the contagion through his bite, and will cutting off his head finally kill him?
    • by NotQuiteReal (608241) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:23AM (#29483303) Journal
      That's why we embalm or cremate folks now. That whole rising from the dead thing causes nothing but problems, however it manifests itself.
      • by X-Power (1009277) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:26AM (#29483319)
        How does embalming stop the dead from rising? By fooling people with their good looks?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        That's why we embalm or cremate folks now. That whole rising from the dead thing causes nothing but problems, however it manifests itself.

        Just make sure to not embalm people with Worcestershire sauce [wikipedia.org].

      • Embalming is used to BE SURE you are dead. We cannot have any last minute recoveries.
        Uncle is a Mortician.

        • by daveime (1253762)

          I'm sure chopping their heads off would work too ?

        • because once they drain the vital fluids (so you don't rot so quickly) you're dead for sure, even if you weren't before!

          Although that doesn't really seem to be zombie/vampire protection though. The ancient Egyptians had it right to scramble the brains and remove them.

      • by Kjella (173770) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @12:18PM (#29483595) Homepage

        That's why we embalm or cremate folks now. That whole rising from the dead thing causes nothing but problems

        Clearly someone has not seen the Mummy etc.

      • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        That's why we embalm or cremate folks now. That whole rising from the dead thing causes nothing but problems, however it manifests itself.

        Seemed to turn out pretty well for that Jesus dude.

        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by daveime (1253762)

          But not it seems for the hundred of thousands who have died in his name since.

        • by s4m7 (519684) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @12:56PM (#29483761) Homepage

          Seemed to turn out pretty well for that Jesus dude.

          Bah. Three days to respawn? He must've done some serious TKing or something.

          • by Eudial (590661) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @01:18PM (#29483901)

            Since he was walking on clipped tiles and handing out more objects than could possibly fit in his inventory, there was justified suspicion of some form of cheating. I think the server has been patched now, though, since that doesn't seem to happen as often.

            • by Kjella (173770)

              Suspicion of? Apparently he was given sudo power because his old man is root on the server, but it was revoked. And like all sons he was fired upwards to sit at the CEO's right hand, they even made one helluva PR stunt out of it. Dying isn't quite the sacrifice it used to be when you don't stay dead and get an eternity in heaven, I'm fairly sure many would take that severance package, even if the crucifiction is somewhat naster than being escorted out by the security guard.

          • by Narpak (961733)

            Bah. Three days to respawn? He must've done some serious TKing or something.

            Perhaps his mum wouldn't let him log back on until he'd cleaned his room and taken out the trash, or perhaps there were griefers camping his cave until they got bored. Lets not jump to conclusions here.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:26AM (#29483321)

    I took a lab class from him on genetic engineering in the late 90s. Though he was a little eccentric at times, and spoke with an incredibly soft voice, I remember him as a professor who would spend countless hours with the undergraduate students, teaching them to learn the basics of molecular biology - the U of C will be worse off without this devotion, without him. He even wrote me a recommendation letter for graduate school, but I've lost touch with him since then, now, to my infinite regret. May he rest in piece.

  • Oh good (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:32AM (#29483347)

    Now my outfits [wikipedia.org] will finally come back in style, and I can get all the chicks instead of lots of stares and police harassment.

  • Cause of Death? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:34AM (#29483361)

    "An initial autopsy showed that Casadaban "showed no obvious cause of death"", the report goes on to state that the found the bacteria in his bloodstream.
     
      What was his white cell count? Were cytokines present in his bloodstream? Was his lymphatic system showing signs of duress (engorged, trapped glands; cell death)?
     
    I'm also a bit wary of the fact that the report was released from the University Medical Center where the man worked, not the local Medical Examiner's office. I'd love to see a second conclusion, and not have to fear that the University is doing this as a publicity stunt for their research programme.
     
    Going to be a real embarassment if we find out he died of a cheeseburger, or embollism, or insulin-related shock.
     
    If I get out of my car and promptly drop dead, you're not going to say that driving my car was the cause of death.

    • by TheReij (1641099)

      You would hope that any research university that wishes to maintain credibility would not pull a stunt like you proposed.

      However, I agree that it would be interesting to see what the city/county/state/federal medical examiner would think of this. Plague is plague if you ask me and should be treated seriously.

    • by antifoidulus (807088) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:51AM (#29483449) Homepage Journal
      If I get out of my car and promptly drop dead, you're not going to say that driving my car was the cause of death.

      Guess it all depends on who you cut off...
    • If I get out of my car and promptly drop dead, you're not going to say that driving my car was the cause of death.

      That might depend a lot on the condition of the car in question at the time of your death. If you catch my drift.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        That might depend a lot on the condition of the car in question at the time of your death. If you catch my drift.

        Are you talking about exhaust leaks, or "headlights staring at each other"?

  • Great. (Score:1, Funny)

    by XPeter (1429763) *

    First Swine Flu, and now this shit?

    May we all pray the remaining survivors (Steve Jobs, Chuck Norris, Richard Stallman and Cowboy Neal) start a new civilization.

  • movie plot (Score:4, Insightful)

    by confused one (671304) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:50AM (#29483441)
    Isn't this where the plot for about a dozen movies kicks in?
  • You have to be very smart, takes decades of education, and it can kill you in ways we haven't even discovered yet. And that's why they get the big bucks.
  • Oh rats.

  • My building (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hyperion2010 (1587241) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @12:46PM (#29483717)

    So I work in the same building as this lab, use the same elevators, touch the same door handles etc. I'm not too worried, but plenty of people are and have been since they started working with your *more dangerous than ecoli* varieties. What really pissed me off is that if I had not heard about this from a PI down the hall yeasterday I would have found out about this through /. I can understand why the UoC doesnt send out alerts like this via email to everyone, but some people do need to know. The PI down the hall basically said "shit shit, god damn it, shit, the cdc will be here to deal with and who knows if we'll be allowed to stay," probably a slight over-reaction, but as my mother the md mph said "this is one of those NEVER things." Anyway, I was very sorry to hear about this, also as TFA says, we really dont know if this was a opportunistic infection that was able to get in because he was already sick or what.

    • by Shag (3737)

      What biosafety level (if any) is the lab?

      How quickly can they retrofit it to be the next level up?

      • by glwtta (532858)
        What biosafety level (if any) is the lab?

        From TFA: "Lab researchers who work with the bacteria would typically wear gloves, a lab coat and protective goggles, and the bacteria would be disposed of in a biohazard bag and heated for about two hours, Alexander said."

        So, BSL1, the "Maybe don't keep it in the same fridge as your lunch" level.

        Apparently you only need BSL2 to work with (unmodified) Y. pestis, though (CDC link [state.or.us]), so it's not exactly "special procedures", either.
  • by DynaSoar (714234)

    Plague. Death. Otherwise healthy individuals.

    'Toxic Skies'.

    The only difference is there's no mention of chemtrails in the Sun-Times article. Of course, there wouldn't be, would there.

  • Ah, whew. I misread the summary; I was afraid that not brushing my teeth was going to kill me one of these days.

    • by treeves (963993)
      You laugh, but I understand that unhealthy gums [google.com] can lead to heart disease and that brushing and flossing can prevent it.
  • Jumping the Gun (Score:4, Insightful)

    by drbuzz0 (1638167) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @01:03PM (#29483815)
    This is newsworthy if he actually died from this strain which we had thought was not dangerous. Considering that it has been used as a vaccine and plenty of others have been exposed without any ill effects, it seems like concluding that the plague bacteria is what killed him is very premature. There's no direct evidence that this is the cause of death - there is no cause of death as of yet.

    The autopsy showed "showed no obvious cause of death" except for the presence of the weakened strain of the plague bacteria Yersinia pestis in his blood, the U. of C. Medical Center said in a statement."

    That is far from conclusive, especially given that there aren't any reports that he developed the symptoms of the infection before dying. Chances are we'll get some more conclusive information as they continue to review the case and the data from the autopsy along with tissue samples and toxicology tests. However, there is the possibility that the cause of death will not be known. There are a number of deaths each year in otherwise healthy people which can't be conclusively proven to be caused by a single cause.
  • Don't they have penicillin in Chicago? really? This guy died from studying the plague and it didn't occur to him to get some antibiotics?

  • You! (Score:3, Funny)

    by SEWilco (27983) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @02:23PM (#29484347) Journal
    In Soviet Chicago, plague study you!
  • by Lost Penguin (636359) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:50PM (#29485731) Homepage
    the abyss gazes also into you.
  • what if he transmitted it to others?

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @08:28PM (#29486515) Homepage
    Wetterhahn was a chemist who was working with dimethylmercury which people did not realize was nearly as dangerous as it was. She died of mercury poisoning despite following all the standard safety requirements. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Wetterhahn [wikipedia.org] Sometimes we just don't know enough.

Statistics are no substitute for judgement. -- Henry Clay

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