This new nanoparticle could protect against deadly sarin gas

This new nanoparticle could protect against deadly sarin gas
July 27, 2017

Back in April, French authorities published a chemical analysis showing that the chemical weapons attack in Syria was indeed conducted by the Syrian government. 

What makes that scary, beyond the obvious, is that the chemical weapon used in the attack, sarin gas, has no color, taste or order in its pure form, so one could potentially be exposed to the lethal chemical without knowing.

Spraying PesticideSarin gas has only ever been used a handful of times, and it is banned by the United Nations, but attacks like the one in Syria highlight the need for some form of protection.

Researchers from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and Moscow State University in Russia have developed a sort of preventive nanoparticle against organophosphate nerve agents, including sarin gas and many common pesticides.

The drug, which is comprised of an enzyme packaged into a tiny nanoparticle protected the mice used in the study for up to 17 hours at relatively low doses. The research was published in the Journal of Controlled Release

Alexander Kabanov, director of UNC’s Center for Nanotechnology in Drug Delivery and lead author of the study, says the enzyme-filled nanoparticle can also help break down organophosphates during and after exposure. This could be a step up from the drugs like atropine, which are currently used to treat sarin exposure, but only work after exposure has occurred and have potentially dangerous side effects.

The enzyme Kabanov and his colleagues used, organophosphorus hydrolase, rapidly breaks chemical bonds in the organophosphate molecules, and one enzyme can potentially break down thousands of organophosphate molecules.

The trick, Kabanov says, is keeping the enzyme working in the body long enough to have broken down the toxins. Our bodies expertly break down proteins so that we can repurpose them into our own bodies, or chewing up foreign proteins before they can cause too much trouble.

That’s where the nanoparticle comes in. It keeps our digestive and immune systems from destroying the enzyme before it can break down the toxin. In the study, the researchers detected that the enzyme continued to circle through the bloodstream for 17 hours, but Kabanov thinks that even longer coverage could be possible. Making the nanoparticle smaller even than the 25-100 nanometers it is now, could keep the immune system from seeing it as a hostile invader.

The enzyme nanoparticles have so far only been tested in mice, but even if the drug were ready for human use, it would be neither practical nor necessary to have everyone take anti-sarin drugs all the time. That said, there are definitely people that could benefit from drugs like this. Soldiers and aid workers could benefit greatly from that protection in places where chemical weapons have been used in the past. Farmers, or anyone who frequently works with pesticides could also use it as a precaution, or as a backup to other protective equipment.

More research will be needed to adapt the nanoparticles for human use, but this drug could potentially nullify some of the most deadly chemicals ever made by man.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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