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.