Fort Detrick scientist who improved anthrax vaccine after 2001 attacks is Heyman finalist
By Gregory Thomas,
Art Friedlander agrees to a morning rendezvous at a McDonald’s parking lot in Frederick. Taking guests to a military post where scientists test vaccines for anthrax is “a pain in the neck,” he says.
Friedlander is a senior scientist at Fort Detrick, the brain stem of the military’s biological defense program. The experiments he designs, and his team’s research, form the basis of the government’s understanding of how to handle anthrax exposures and bubonic plague outbreaks.
“The operating rules of the game are, essentially, to understand the interaction between the bad guys and us,” the 72-year-old microbiologist says while checking in at one of Fort Detrick’s many security stations on the way to his office. “Figuring that out — that’s the interesting part of it.”
Security and surveillance at Fort Detrick have gradually increased over the past 11 years, since letters containing anthrax spores started landing in mailboxes up and down the East Coast shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Five people died of anthrax poisoning, and 17 others were hospitalized. Recognizing a potential threat to public safety, the government began pouring money into biological and chemical defense research at Fort Detrick — research Friedlander had been working on for decades.
“Art was one of the very few experts the U.S. government could turn to for information about anthrax in the fall of 2001, and his work turned out to be exceptionally important,” says Richard Danzig, the secretary of the Navy under President Bill Clinton who is now chairman of the Center for a New American Security, a national security think-tank. “We suddenly needed information, and we needed it very urgently.”
At the Pentagon’s request, Friedlander and his team in the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) improved upon an anthrax vaccine first rendered in the 1950s. The vaccine helps produce antibodies that neutralize the anthrax toxin, enabling white blood cells to fight the anthrax bacteria out of our system.
Using advanced computer models and lab work, Friedlander’s team rendered a highly purified version of the existing vaccine, which is based on a protein the toxin produces. It’s not a silver bullet but, taken regularly with antibiotics for two months, the new vaccine allows for a relatively speedy recovery from anthrax infection. The updated version has proven successful in primates, and it is in clinical trials for humans.
Developing a better anthrax vaccine, as well as a more effective vaccine against the plague, earned Friedlander a nomination for a prestigious national service award in homeland security this year. Dubbed the “government Oscars,” the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are awarded to outstanding civil servants by the nonprofit group Partnership for Public Service. Friedlander is one of 33 finalists across nine categories. The medals will be awarded next month.
“He is one of USAMRIID’s unsung heroes,” says Col. Andrea Stahl, a deputy commander at Fort Detrick, who nominated Friedlander for the award. “And we have some of the world’s experts in biological agents here.”
As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Friedlander read early science-fiction stories about intrepid young doctors stopping plague outbreaks and unraveling disease epidemics — stories such as Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Arrowsmith,” which inspired a generation of doctors and scientists. They are similar to detective stories, except the climaxes involve scientific breakthroughs rather than shootouts with bad guys.
“The doctors were heroic figures,” Friedlander says. “I don’t read the stories much anymore. I read the real stuff now.”
He studied biology at Harvard — “back when you could smoke in the laboratories,” he says, chuckling — then earned his medical degree at the University of Pittsburgh and completed his medical training in Brooklyn at the State University of New York. His fascination with infectious diseases took hold during a postdoctoral fellowship at University of California at San Diego, where he worked to improve therapy for kidney infections. In 1979, Friedlander left academia and joined the military at Fort Detrick, a move that allowed him to focus exclusively on bacteria research. He quickly found a challenge in anthrax.
“There wasn’t much research going on back then,” says Friedlander, standing outside his office building at Fort Detrick. He explains that the National Institutes of Health developed a field of bio-defense research at the post after the anthrax attacks, then points toward two tall buildings a stone’s throw away. “Those are both new.”
Inside, Friedlander marches through a maze of hallways to his office, swiping his identification card at half a dozen doorways. His office is small and windowless, nestled at the heart of the compound where linoleum flooring of the labs gives way to carpet. He sits behind his desk, barely visible behind stacks of papers, and adjusts his eyeglasses. Three faded portraits of bearded men, taken during the 19th century, adorn his desk in the spot typically reserved for vacation snapshots.
The first photo shows German biologist Robert Koch, who discovered that anthrax was an infectious disease in the mid-19th century. The second is French chemist Louis Pasteur, who created the first vaccines for anthrax and rabies shortly thereafter. Third is Swiss bacteriologist Alexander Yersin, who discovered the pathogen responsible for the bubonic plague near the turn of the 20th century.
“These are the guys who started the game,” Friedlander says. “We’re just following in their footsteps.”
His colleagues and superiors say Friedlander’s work is as important to the science as the men on his desk. Gerald Parker, a retired colonel who oversaw medical research at Fort Detrick during the anthrax attacks, says Friedlander could wind up in a picture frame on the desk of a pioneering microbiologist.
“I imagine there are already some people who aspire to follow in his footsteps,” Parker says. “From what I know of Art’s reputation in the international scientific community in this area, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”