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Professor Macolm Casadaban of the University of Chicago has died in what appears to be an unusual accident. Reportedly the autoposy revealed that exposure to a weakened strain of the plague enterobacteria may have killed him.  (Source: University of Chicago)
Incident echoes death of Russian Cold War researcher

In 1988, 44-year-old Russian bioweapons researcher Dr. Nikolai Ustinov while working at Russia's Vector Institute on the Marburg virus, a potent pathogen, accidentally pricked himself with a needle he was using to inject guinea pigs.  The researcher was kept in quarantine, and he kept a detailed journal of his symptoms, even as his fingers bled onto the pages.  In the end he died and Russia harvested his blood to produce Variant U, named in his honor, which was one of the most pathogenic bioweapons to date.

Professor Malcolm J. Casadaban of the U. of C. Medical Center, a prestigious researcher with degrees from Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed a much different path -- one of medical research to prevent disease -- but has been found dead, presumably in a similar incident. 

The professor had been working with a weakened strain of plague bacteria to study its genetics.  In theory, the weakened version was harmless, but an autopsy of the 60-year-old molecular geneticist showed "no obvious cause of death".  What it did find was the presence of the weakened strain of the plague bacteria Yersinia pestis in his blood.  The strain has been Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for lab studies and is believed to be nonpathogenic, but some doctors are theorizing it might have killed Professor Casadaban.

Dr. Kenneth Alexander, a virologist and chief of pediatric infections at the U. of C. Medical Center says that its understandable that Professor Casadaban was exposed to the bacteria as it was assumed to be harmless and no special safety precautions were required to handle it. According to him, the typical procedure is to 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.

Officials are still trying to determine whether Professor Casadaban had any preexisting conditions that made him more susceptible to the strain, or if there was something different about the particular strain he was working with.  They have notified his close contacts and are working with the CDC to isolate them, as a precaution.

Dr. Alexander is at a loss about how the weakened strain could cause death.  He bemoans, "There's no indication thus far that this is anything different from the laboratory strain that we know it to be.  I can't find any reports of anything like this happening before."

His 21-year-old daughter Leigh Casadaban remarks on the tragic loss, stating, "[Dad] tried so hard to be healthy. He hated smoking. He would never even let us watch a movie with smoking in it. He never used alcohol."

Officials have reportedly found no evidence of foul play involved in the death.

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RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By drmo on 9/21/2009 1:41:53 PM , Rating: 2
Because they apparently don't wear masks, then he could have inhaled it and the bacteria got into his blood that way. As I recall, plague infection ususally occurs through inhalation or injection/flea bite.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By TomZ on 9/21/2009 2:14:04 PM , Rating: 2
When most people talk about "injection," they are talking about injection with a needle.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By omnicronx on 9/21/2009 2:31:43 PM , Rating: 2
Its still a plausible theory, its not like it is sitting out on a desk. The way they were exposing the test animals was most likely via needle, making it far more likely that an accidental prick could have infected him. Nobody thought it was a pathogen, so why treat it as such, he could have easily pricked himself and thought nothing of it. If he was infected, I really doubt it was via inhalation or touch, otherwise they probably would have found a cause by now, aas you would think the test specimen would have similar symptoms.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By drmo on 9/21/2009 3:02:50 PM , Rating: 3
If they thought it was nonpathogenic, they may very well have had it sitting out on a desk, or dropped a petri dish containing the bacteria (thus aerosolizing it). I didn't see where they were injecting animals, so either option is plausible. They could also be studying the pneumonic form in animals.

I'm surprised he wasn't vaccinated against the bacteria, even though it was not considered dangerous. Maybe there isn't a good vaccine.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By omnicronx on 9/21/2009 3:13:24 PM , Rating: 2
Heh there is no vaccine for the bubonic plague.. if thats what it really was. While what you say also seems plausible, I really doubt they have large quantities of the plague(or derivative of) to be leaving it out in a petri dish.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By drmo on 9/22/2009 9:33:42 AM , Rating: 2
It seems there was a plague vaccine, but it is no longer available in the United States.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By jajig on 9/21/2009 8:46:01 PM , Rating: 2
You get vaccinated against viruses, you take antibiotics for bacterial infections.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By Gibsons on 9/22/2009 8:08:46 AM , Rating: 3
You can get vaccinated against bacterial infections. Tetanus and a few others.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By markitect on 9/21/2009 3:29:03 PM , Rating: 4
Standard handling procedures for something like this would be rubber gloves, surgical mask, and eye protection. It is in fact very plausible that it spent significant amount of time "sitting on the desk"

I know many researchers that use non-potent e-coli. And I've seen people eating lunch in the same lab they research in.

I think the lesson here is that viruses mutate quickly, and given enough exposure they will very possibly adapt to the limitations we've given them.

RE: Gotta love the Russkies
By omnicronx on 9/21/2009 3:44:29 PM , Rating: 2
The difference being, ecoli can be found pretty much anywhere, find some runoff and you got yourself some ecoli. You don't just leave something like this sitting out..deadly or not. It is well known that pretty much any samples are carefully controlled. i.e this is NOT the kind of thing that would be left out while eating lunch.

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