“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.”