Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to media and U.S. Senate offices, killing five people, sickening 17 others and causing widespread fear throughout the country.
This first major bioterrorist incident in American history prompted Congress to appropriate billions of dollars for research, public health and homeland security initiatives to help protect the nation. But long before these chilling anthrax attacks occurred, Dr. Arthur Friedlander had been on the case.
As the senior scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), Friedlander had been researching anthrax and plague for many years, working to develop vaccines and therapeutics for these serious biological threats.
“When all hell broke loose and people were reaching back for research data, it all came back to Dr. Friedlander,” said Dr. John Parker, the chief medical officer of SAIC, a scientific, engineering and technical services company. “His research built the broad understanding of what anthrax is and led us to answers of how to treat those who were exposed.”
Friedlander has since led research teams that developed a new vaccine that has shown in animal models to be highly protective against inhalational anthrax. The findings from these studies have led directly to human clinical trials, and could result in a vaccine that offers greater protection against anthrax than the version now in use.
In addition to his seminal work on anthrax, Friedlander has directed research on plague, a devastating biological threat and naturally occurring disease.
His leadership has culminated in the development of a new multi-component plague vaccine that has been proven effective against pneumonic plague in animal models and is currently in human clinical trials.
Dr. Gerald Parker, the deputy assistant secretary for chemical and biological defense at the Department of Defense (DOD), said there is currently no licensed plague vaccine. He said the vaccine being tested so far has been shown to be effective against aerosol exposure, which is the major concern from a bioterrorism perspective.
“This is a huge breakthrough,” he said. “We are very optimistic that it’s going to get licensed, and it’s a testament to Art’s work.”
Friedlander said his work originally centered on bioterrorism in warfare, but the issue became a matter of concern for civilian public health in 2001 after the anthrax attacks, and created a sense of urgency and relevance in terms of how to deal with massive outbreaks in the civilian populations.
He said big pharmaceutical companies have not had the economic incentives to undertake years of costly research and testing to develop vaccines for anthrax, plague and other biological agents, leaving it to the government to fill the void.
Friedlander’s research not only has led to the two vaccine candidates currently in clinical trials, but has formed the basis for the Department of Defense’s preventive medicine policy for managing potential aerosol anthrax exposures in individuals who have not been previously vaccinated; led to adoption of the same management recommendations for civilians by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and resulted in Food and Drug Administration approval of an antibiotic for treatment after exposure to anthrax in the civilian community.
Col. Andrea Stahl, the deputy commander of USAMRIID, said Friedlander’s work involves cutting-edge science and is extremely challenging—“almost an art form in that you really have to understand the agent itself, the bacteria, the toxin, and really put your mind to figuring out a workable strategy.”
“Sometimes things that make all the sense in the world don’t work and there’s no good reason, so you have to go back to the drawing board,” said Stahl. “That’s what Art does. He’s trying to tackle really difficult problems, and to develop products that take creativity, tenacity and endless amounts of patience, and it’s this level of dedication that makes him very special.”
Parker of the DOD said Friedlander is “known throughout the international scientific community as one of, if not the leading expert on anthrax, vaccine development and microbiology.”
“Anthrax is still the number one biological agent that we need to be concerned about from a bioterrorism perspective,” said Parker. “We are all safer and we are better prepared because of Art’s work.”
Friedlander began his infectious disease research as an active duty officer in 1979, and left the military in 2002 to assume the civilian position as senior scientist at USAMRIID.
He said there have been two major themes that have defined his three-decade career—“trying to understand as much as I can about these biological diseases and offering a rational approach to improving treatments and developing vaccines to protect the war fighter and the nation’s security.”