Researcher working on destruction of nerve agent

September 25th, 2008 - 4:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 25 (IANS) Texas A&M University chemist Frank Raushel is developing an enzyme that might neutralize oganophosphates, an agent in chemical weapons. Organophosphates are neurotoxins — they attack the nervous system by blocking the function of the enzyme acetylcholine esterase, which carries nerve signals.

When organs such as the lungs do not receive appropriate nerve signals, control is lost over respiratory muscles, and it usually results in death by asphyxiation.

Synthetic organophosphates started their journey as insecticides in the 1930s but soon made their way into the dangerous alleys of chemical warfare during World War II, reports Eurekalert.

Raushel, who has been working on detoxification of organophosphates for nearly 10 years, said their toxic properties are a serious threat to the health and well being of civilized societies.

Researchers have discovered a bacterial enzyme, phosphotriesterase, which can recognise and destroy the toxicity of a broad spectrum of organophosphate nerve agents.

What Raushel aims to do is design and characterize bacterial phosphotriesterases that are better at detecting, destroying and detoxifying those organophosphates that pose the most serious threats to human health.

Although outlawed by several international treaties, some countries have used chemical agents during war. In 1988, Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja was exposed to multiple chemical agents, killing about 5,000 of the town’s 50,000 residents. After the incident, traces of mustard gas and the organophosphates sarin, tabun and VX were discovered.

Raushel has been awarded a four-year grant of $1.2 million by the National Institutes of Health to carry out his work on organophosphates.

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