Determined NAU Team Tracks Tainted Heroin Across Globe
Students Help Solve Mystery
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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,
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