Science
4:30 am
Tue June 17, 2014

ET Researchers Developing Preventative Treatment For Chemical Gas Attacks

An August 2013 sarin gas attack in Syria left hundreds dead and thousands injured.
Credit Reuters

 Researchers at the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory say they’re moving closer to the development of a drug that can be taken to limit the effects of a chemical gas attack.

Chemical nerve agents like sarin disrupt the body’s ability to regulate certain nerve functions.  For instance, the victim of a sarin gas attack may begin drooling profusely because the body no longer has a way of telling it to stop.  It can become deadly when the gas interferes with critical functions, like breathing.

Hundreds of people were killed and thousands more were injured in a sarin gas attack near Damascus, Syria last August. 

Treatment options currently exist for victims of a chemical gas attack, but they have to be administered immediately after the attack to have much effect.  Because many nerve agents like sarin are tasteless and odorless, victims often don’t know they’ve been attacked until the symptoms kick in.  At that point, much of the damage has already been done.

The East Tennessee researchers, working with scientists in France, are developing a prophylactic drug that can be taken as a preventative measure by those at risk of an attack.      

The key to the treatment is a protein that is extracted from squid.  Simulations suggest the protein acts as a "bioscavenger",  capable of gobbling up nerve agents.  Because these proteins would already exist in the body of a victim, they could get to work immediately before the agents could cause much damage. 

However, researchers say the protein isn’t compatible with the human body and may have to be mutated or re-engineered before it can be used by humans.  It's one of several obstacles that still need to be addressed. But members of the team say their research could neutralize the effectiveness of chemical gas as a weapon.

"We hope that prophylactically administering efficient bioscavengers will make the use of nerve agents much less attractive to belligerents," says Jeremy Smith, UT-ORNL Governor's Chair and a computational biologist working on the team.

Their study on the use of engineered bioscavengers recently appeared in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.