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Nature’s weapon against nerve agents

An enzyme found naturally in the blood could help protect soldiers against the effects of the deadly nerve agent sarin, reports Cath O’Driscoll in the Society of Chemical Industry’s magazine Chemistry & Industry, the magazine of the SCI.

The US military is funding a three-year study to evaluate the effectiveness of the enzyme, known as GOT, in protecting animals against the damaging cognitive and coordination problems resulting from exposure to the organophosphorus nerve agent.

The study will be carried out by Israeli firm Braintact, and follows earlier unpublished work with rats which showed the enzyme successfully protected the animals against neurological problems caused by exposure to paraoxon, a model compound for nerve agents such as sarin, soman and VX.

GOT’s ability to protect against neurological damage, the company claims, is down to the fact it can bind to, and chemically inactivate, a chemical called glutamate, also found in the blood and brain. In normal, healthy individuals, glutamate’s role is as a neurotransmitter carrying nerve impulses between cells. When cells are damaged or dying, however, as on exposure to nerve agents – or as a result of other forms of brain injury including stroke or disease – they release far more glutamate than normal, over-exciting and killing nearby nerve cells.

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In related work published earlier this year, by Vivian Teichberg at the Weizmann Institute of Science and researchers at the Beer Sheva University in Israel, activation of GOT in the blood was found to prevent much of the brain damage caused after brain injury in rats. ‘It appears that most of the damage that is caused is due to excess glutamate since we can entirely prevent the brain cell death after traumatic injury,’ Teichberg said.

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