Researchers make progress on protein that neutralizes toxins

Researchers from New York University (NYU) made progress on a protein that could prevent brain damage in military troops and civilians exposed to toxins, according to a study recently published in ChemBioChem.

It has been documented that proteins called phosphotriesterases are able to degrade organophosphates, chemicals that are commonly used in warfare agents and pesticides. Organophosphates can bond to neurotransmitters in the brain and cause irreversible damage by interfering with the neurotransmitters' ability to function, according to an NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering press release.

The NYU researchers developed a method for reengineering phosphotriesterases by incorporating computational biology and an artificial fluorinated amino acid. The resulting protein had a longer half life than standard phosphotriesterases with all the detoxification capabilities of the original version.

"Organophosphates pose tremendous danger to people and wildlife, and sadly it's not unusual for humans to come into contact with these compounds, whether through exposure to pesticide or an intentional chemical warfare attack," Jin Kim Montclare, one of the lead researchers, said. "We've known that phosphotriesterases had the power to detoxify these nerve agents, but they were far too fragile to be used therapeutically."

Montclare said that the reengineered protein could be used in therapeutic formulations or when stores of toxic nerve agents need to be decommissioned.

"Oftentimes, chemical agent stockpiles are decommissioned through processes that involve treatment with heat and caustic chemical reagents for neutralization, followed by hazardous materials disposal," Montclare said. "These proteins could accomplish that same task enzymatically, without the need for reactors and formation of dangerous byproducts."

The researchers plan to develop therapeutic applications for the modified phosophotriesterase.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Research Office.