Pentagon eyes next-gen countermeasures against nerve agents

Posted by Trent Nouveau

New countermeasures against nerve agents remain a high priority R&D focus for the US Department of Defense (DoD).

Indeed, military analysts at the Pentagon believe the potential use of chemical agents by enemy forces or terrorists poses a threat to both US troops and civilian populations.

Pentagon eyes next-gen countermeasures against nerve agents Interestingly enough, human butyrylcholinesterase - a bioscavenger that binds nerve agent in the blood stream before it can affect the nervous system - has emerged as a potential new approach to reduce toxicity of chemical warfare nerve agents.

According to DARPA scientists, a biological scavenger should have little or no behavioral or physiological side effects, which is a definite improvement over current treatments.

To be sure, results of preliminary research support recombinant butyrylcholinesterase as a possible next generation of pharmaceuticals to protect soldiers against nerve agent poisoning.

As such, DARPA will be kicking off a Proposers' Day workshop on Jan. 20, 2012, to provide information on its Butyrylcholinesterase Expression in Plants initiative that seeks to demonstrate how recombinant butyrylcholinesterase can be expressed using a pharmaceutical platform in Nicotiana benthamiana plants.

"This project will build on the Blue Angel H1 influenza vaccine acceleration program and will show the versatility and flexibility of the plant expression platform for medical countermeasures," explained DARPA exec Dr. Alan Magill.

Nerve agents are typically defined as a class of phosphorus-containing organic chemicals (organophosphates) that disrupt the mechanism by which nerves transfer messages to organs. The disruption is triggered by blocking acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that normally relaxes the activity of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter.

Poisoning by a nerve agent leads to contraction of pupils, profuse salivation, convulsions, involuntary urination and defecation, and eventual death by asphyxiation as control is lost over respiratory muscles.

Some nerve agents are easily vaporized or aerosolized, with the respiratory system targeted as the primary portal of entry into the body. Nerve agents can also be absorbed through the skin, requiring at-risk individuals to wear a full body suit in addition to a respirator.