Vaccination-like drugs developed nearly a decade ago by a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher may someday protect Americans from the threat of nerve gas attack.
Research in the late 1980s and early 1990s by UIC chemistry professor Robert Moriarty, in collaboration with the U.S. Army's Medical Research and Development Command, resulted in a process to develop drugs that protect against soman, a deadly nerve agent, prior to exposure. The drugs proved very effective in tests on laboratory mice, and the findings were put on file.
Since Sept. 11, the need for protection against chemical weapons attack has a new urgency, and Moriarty's research could play a vital role.
Soman, originally developed as an insecticide, works by blocking a chemical in the body that normally inactivates the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. "When nerve agents block this chemical, nerves fire continuously, resulting in convulsions or respiratory collapse," said Moriarty.
Antidotes are only effective in the first minutes after exposure. Moriarty's approach is to develop vaccine-like protection so the body recognizes and attacks the agent immediately upon exposure. He accomplished that in a series of steps.
First, he synthesized a hapten - a small molecular substance that resembles the nerve agent the body must attack. The hapten was then attached to a protein, because the body's immune system does not recognize small molecules. Army biochemists then used this large molecule to generate antibodies from the serum of laboratory rabbits. From the thousands of antibodies produced, those that were catalytically active in cutting apart the nerve agent were isolated and purified and tested in laboratory mice that were exposed to soman. "Tests showed an 80 percent survival rate, which is very high," Moriarty said.
The research never moved to the pharmaceutical stage because there had been no critical need for nerve gas protection. In the wake of Sept. 11, though, Moriarty thinks there may be renewed interest in such pre-treatment drugs, especially for emergency personnel such as police, ambulance crews and firefighters, as well as the military. "If they are going into a situation where there is a threat of nerve agents, they would certainly want to be protected as best they could," he said.
A 1998 State Department report says 20 countries are suspected of having or developing chemical weapons, which it notes are "attractive to countries or individuals seeking mass-destruction capability because they are relatively cheap to produce and do not demand the elaborate infrastructure needed to make nuclear weapons."
Paul Francuch (312) 996-3457; firstname.lastname@example.org