Determined NAU Team Tracks Tainted Heroin Across Globe

Students Help Solve Mystery

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Meagan Seymour, undergraduate biomedical science major, examined the genetic code of hundreds of Bacillus anthracis samples to identify the geographic origins of the anthrax that was killing heroin users in Europe.

Meagan Seymour knew her career path before she finished high school in May 2009—laboratory-dwelling crime fighter specializing in forensics. Her tour of the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University (NAU) convinced her that NAU was the right place to be.

Solving a real-life mystery

But Seymour couldn’t have known when she enrolled at NAU that as a freshman she would help solve a mystery involving the deaths of 14 people and hundreds of other cases of anthrax infections. It was an investigation that would involve law enforcement, health professionals, and scientists from around the world, who would follow the trail of drug smugglers across Europe through Turkey and south to poppy fields in Afghanistan.

The first two deaths surfaced in December 2009. Unrelated heroin users with anthrax infections were admitted to a hospital in Glasgow, Scotland. Both died within days. Several other cases also surfaced in Glasgow, and eventually the net widened to include England, Germany, France, and Denmark. News stories speculated on the source of the anthrax: Was it terrorism (intentional tainting aimed at wiping out drug users) or accidental contamination?

Paul Keim, NAU Regents’ Professor and Director of NAU’s Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, saw the news stories, and they grabbed his attention. NAU’s center has amassed the largest catalog of Bacillus anthracis in the world as a result of its role in tracking down the source of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks in the United States.

 “One of the most powerful conclusions we can make in forensic analysis is to say what it’s not," notes NAU Regents’ Professor Paul Keim. 

By January, Keim was on the case. The death toll had climbed to six. Despite Glasgow officials releasing public service announcements and posting signs warning of the dangers, drug users with anthrax infections kept showing up in emergency rooms.

Lab work assigned to undergraduates

Thirty-four patient samples arrived at NAU in February. The lab work was assigned to several undergraduate students including Seymour. By that time, police had linked cases in London and Aachen, Germany. Spenser Wolken, then an NAU junior majoring in biology, and Seymour began sequencing the entire genome of the samples, mapping millions of base pairs that made up its DNA. Just like human DNA, anthrax DNA has variations, and those are used for comparison with known strains.

The students examined all 34 samples and found they matched each other. Next, they found the anthrax strain was in the same family as cataloged strains from Asia and Africa, and it most closely related to two known strains from Turkey.

The investigative team in the United Kingdom (U.K.) was relieved to learn the bioweapons strain tested in the 1940s on Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland and the Ames strain used in the U.S. attacks in 2001 were eliminated as possible sources. “One of the most powerful conclusions we can make in forensic analysis is to say what it’s not,” Keim said. Based on the results, Keim told officials it was highly unlikely the tainted heroin was an act of terrorism.

Anthrax came from farm soil

The team concluded that the most likely source of contamination was farm soil where anthrax occurs naturally. Animals that die of an anthrax infection store the spores in their hides and bones. The heroin might have been cut with bone meal that contained anthrax spores or it may have been wrapped in tainted goatskins, sometimes used for smuggling in heroin. 

Since that meeting in spring 2010, 200 cases and 14 deaths have been linked to the same strain of anthrax in heroin users. The Centers for Disease Control published the international team’s scientific findings associated with the investigation in the August 2012 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, and an article in the U.K. edition of Wired magazine described the multiagency effort to solve the case.

No cases were reported in 2011, but in 2012 the contaminated heroin resurfaced. Since June, 10 new cases, including two fatalities, have been reported in the U.K., Germany, Denmark, and France. 

Wolken earned a B.S. degree in biology in May, 2010, and moved on to medical school. Seymour will graduate in December, 2010 with a bachelor's degree in biomedical science. She has continued working in the center and has tested some 500 anthrax samples and traced many back to their geographic origins—results that contribute to the world's catalog of known strains.

 --Adapted from “Inside NAU.”