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Finding an antidote — Scientists work on making nerve agents obsolete

Janice Chambers, one of the university's William L. Giles Distinguished Professors, is becoming research director for Delta Health Alliance, a non-profit collaboration of state institutions and agencies. (photo by Kristen Hines Baker)

Janice Chambers, one of the university’s William L. Giles Distinguished Professors, is becoming research director for Delta Health Alliance, a non-profit collaboration of state institutions and agencies. (photo by Kristen Hines Baker)

By Wally Northway

While the world has been tensely watching Syria and its use and supply of chemical weapons, a group of Mississippi scientists has been quietly working on a project that could render those weapons obsolete in the future.

Researchers at Mississippi State University are in the second year of work on an antidote that promises to stop nerve agents’ effect on the body before it does any damage to the victim.

“We are extremely excited about the potential of this work,” said Dr. Jan Chambers, a Giles Distinguished Professor and director of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences who is leading the research effort.

The scientific team at MSU has obtained grant funding through the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency to develop nerve agent antidotes that can be used by DOD in cases of chemical warfare.

Chambers said to her knowledge, the MSU antidote would be the first to stop the nerve agents from doing harm to the victim.

» READ MORE: Protecting children from nerve agents

Current antidotes act by restoring function to the nervous system after the nerve agent has already degraded it.

“There is the possibility that too much damage to the nervous system occurs before the antidote can reverse the damage and save the victim’s life,” Chambers said. “The antidote compounds we are developing would enhance the ability of a blood enzyme, called paraoxonase, or PON, to degrade the nerve agents before they enter the nervous system.

“Many of us have seen some of the devastating effects of the nerve agent, sarin, on television news reports on its recent use in Syria. These are the toxic reactions we are trying to prevent.”

The delivery of the serum could also be pioneering. Currently, all nerve agent antidotes are delivered by an auto-injector, which is jabbed into the thigh. Chambers said the MSU serum might be deliverable via pill or ingested nasally.

MSU is stressing that no nerve agent is being stored or used in the experiments. Instead, the researchers are using compounds that resemble the agents, so that they can safely conduct testing.

The researchers are currently using donated human blood to conduct their experiments. When the work progresses passed the test tube phase or becomes available to the military is still to be determined. The team showed enough progress during the first year to gain funding for the second year of trials.

Chambers was in Canada this week making the first presentation on the project. In the meantime, the researchers are working through the patent approval process and are collecting more data.

The team consists of Dr. Jan Chambers; Dr. Howard Chambers, professor in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology; and, Steven Gwaltney, professor in MSU’s Department of Chemistry.

While the research shows promise, the MSU scientists know that there is no guarantee that it will be adopted. This is actually MSU’s second research into nerve agent antidotes. The first centered around a serum that would counteract the symptoms of an attack, such as seizures and foaming at the mouth.

It proved effective in the laboratory, but the funding for the study was subsequently dropped.

However, there was a positive from the first study — its success cleared the way for the military to fund the current study.

The research holds promise outside the military — it could also have agricultural uses. Because many insecticides work in the same way that nerve agents do, the antidote being developed by the MSU research team may also be used in cases of insecticide poisoning.

The compounds used in the research were first invented by Dr. Howard Chambers and are being tested in the MSU-CVM Center for Environmental Health Sciences laboratory.

“There is nothing currently available that acts in the same way as the antidote compounds we are researching,” Dr. Jan Chambers said. “The process of making the compounds available for use will be a long one, but we look forward to the next steps and further collaboration across MSU and with other agencies.”



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About Wally Northway

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