Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have created a natural defense to nerve gas. The Weizmann team succeeded in developing an enzyme that breaks down nerve agents efficiently before damage to nerves and muscles is caused.

And this is fantastic news for homeland security.

Nerve gases are used by armies and terrorist organizations, and constitute a threat to both the military and civilian populations. Existing treatment methods are only effective with small doses, have limited efficiency and have serious negative side effects.

The multidisciplinary team of scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science succeeded in developing an enzyme that breaks down nerve agents efficiently before damage to nerves and muscles is caused. Their results were recently published in the journal, Nature Chemical Biology.

Nerve agents disrupt the chemical messages sent between nerve and muscle cells, causing loss of muscle control and ultimately leading to death by suffocation. Such agents interfere with the activity of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the chemical messenger acetylcholine. As a result, acetylcholine continues to exert its effect, resulting in constant muscle contraction throughout the body.

The Israeli scientists successfully modified a natural occurring enzyme, known as PON1, so that it will effectively and efficiently battle nerve gas. The enzyme, which prevents hardening of the arteries, was found to also successfully break down the compounds used to create nerve agents.

Professor Dan Tawfik of the Weizmann Institute’s Biochemeistry Department and his team artificially induced evolution of PON1 so that it will work at an improved rate. Those mutated cells were then tested with nerve gas and AChE to see if they degraded the nerve agent before it degraded the AChE. In most cases the AChE did not cease functioning, making PON1 the winner.

The researchers successfully used mutated enzymes to defeat two different types of nerve gas. But because PON1 seems to be a bit of a “moonlighter,” the scientists are well aware that there is still work to do.

Now, they are working to further expand the scope of their research and develop preventive treatment that provides protection against all types of existing nerve agents. They are also trying to develop enzymes with high enough efficiency to be able to very rapidly break down the nerve agents, so that they can be used to prevent the lethal effects of nerve agents by injection immediately after exposure. Enzymes that could work post-exposure would completely revolutionize how nerve gas victims are treated today.