Nerve agents are toxic chemicals that disrupt signals in the nervous system. They can be absorbed easily through skin contact or by breathing. Exposure to nerve agents interferes with nerve cell signaling and prevents muscles from relaxing, quickly leading to muscle paralysis and eventually death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest. Treatment is possible but must be administered within minutes of exposure. No long-term vaccine or antidote exists, making nerve agents highly effective chemical weapons. One such nerve agent, sarin gas, was used in Syria in 2013 to kill over a thousand people.
Now, scientists have created a nanoparticle antidote against a certain group of nerve agents, including sarin gas. They purified a protein from bacteria that can degrade nerve agents into non-toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, this foreign protein would quickly be removed by the immune system if it was directly injected into someone. To increase the protein’s stability and make it invisible to the immune system, the scientists coated it with gel. As a result, the coated protein can circulate in the body 60 times longer than the uncoated version. One dose of this ‘nano-antidote’ protected mice against daily sarin gas attacks for over one week.
If this nanoparticle works in humans, it may one day protect soldiers from nerve gas attacks on the battlefield. It could also protect inspectors and civilians from unintended exposure at a crime scene involving a nerve agent attack. It may, however, lead to a nerve agent arms race, as each country may try to develop a new chemical that cannot be degraded by the antidote.
Managing Correspondent: Veerasak (Jeep) Srisuknimit
Original Paper: Science
Press article: Science
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