Terry Wu, PhD
Terry Wu, PhD, a research assistant professor in the UNM Department of Internal Medicine, is collaborating with researchers at Sandia National Laboratories on biotechnology that could help protect soldiers exposed to weaponized tularemia.  
Credit: John Arnold

Tularemia, a life-threatening flu-like illness, can spread naturally to humans who come into contact with infected animals, like rabbits. But Francisella tularensis, the bacteria that causes the disease, can also be harnessed in a bomb.

“In an act of war or terrorism, that bomb is going to be releasing an aerosol,” says Terry Wu, PhD, a research assistant professor in the UNM Department of Internal Medicine. “The most dangerous form of tularemia is caused by inhalation.”

With support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Wu and UNM colleagues are collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories on biotechnology that could help protect soldiers exposed to such a weapon.  

The Sandia researchers leading the project, Jeffrey Brinker, PhD, and Carlee Ashley, PhD, have engineered “protocells” – nanoparticles that can be filled with antibiotics and modified to release them in selected tissues at highly controlled rates.

A soldier heading into battle could take a single capsule filled with nanoparticles designed to release an antibiotic after exposure to the infectious agent. The antibiotic would continue to be released over the period of time required to completely eliminate infection.

The drug-delivery system shows promise far beyond the battlefield. Protocells could be modified to target a tumor without damaging surrounding tissue. Or they could be used to reduce public health threats from infectious diseases like tuberculosis, delivering a full course of antibiotic in a single capsule.

The technology works well from an engineering perspective, says Wu. He’s conducting animal studies to determine the safety and drug-release properties of protocells.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we want to know whether the protocell is safe, and if so, what’s the best way to apply it.”