UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US)—In chemical warfare, nerve agents inhibit an enzyme that is crucial for muscle control, causing victims to suffocate. A research team has engineered a similar enzyme to act like a bio-scavenger—destroying all known nerve agents before they can do harm.

Biochemist Andy Hemmert has been working on the project for the past five years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A previous graduate student had deciphered the structure of an enzyme in the liver that breaks down toxins.

“What should we do with it?” was the question that Matt Redinbo, chemistry department chair, posed to Hemmert.

What if, they asked, that enzyme could be changed so it would break down chemical warfare nerve agents?

The U.S. military equips soldiers with treatments to neutralize some chemical nerve agents. Those treatments save lives but also cause sickness and long-term side effects.

Antidotes for all agents exist, but technologies to distinguish among agents—so that one knows which antidote to take—are too expensive and cumbersome to carry in the field.

Hemmert set his sights on a one-antidote-fits-all approach. Of 560 potential changes to the enzyme, he found 50 that do the trick. Only nerve agent analogs—not the real thing—are used in UNC labs.

Their lead antidote candidate will be tested at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. The goal is to determine if an injectable version of the antidote will have few side effects and last several days in the bloodstream.

The ultimate goal would be to create an antidote that soldiers and first responders could take before going into a situation in which they may face a chemical attack.

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