New prophylactic drug could neutralize effects of chemical weapons

Researchers are growing closer to developing a prophylactic drug that neutralizes the effects of chemical weapons, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

Scientists from the University of Tennessee (UT); the Oak Ridge, Tenn.-based Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL); and a French national laboratory in Grenoble are attempting to engineer enzymes known as bioscavengers to work more effectively against chemical weapons. The researchers sought to engineer enzymes to catalyze the hydrolysis of nerve agents to prophylactically diminish their toxic effects.

"Enzymes exist that can potentially chew up nerve agents and render them useless before they've had time to act, but they need to be improved to work faster," Jeremy Smith, the UT-ONRL governor's chair, said.

The researchers used computational sciences and neutron scattering to study the bioscavengers. Neutron scattering lets the scientists see a three-dimensional view of the enzymes while computer simulation uses the view to understand how the enzymes break down the nerve agents.

"The simulations produced an unexpected result," Smith said. "The enzymes break down sarin in an unusual way. Now we can use that result to engineer them rationally."

The team of researchers is seeking funding for research into how the enzyme can be modified to become more efficient in degrading specific nerve agents.

"We hope that prophylactically administering efficient bioscavengers will make the use of nerve agents much less attractive to belligerents," Smith said.