Battlespace Tech

'Bioscavengers' could stop nerve agents in their tracks

The Pentagon is looking to move the ball forward on a medical technology that could protect warfighters from a pernicious battlefield threat—nerve agents of the type that have been used in Syria.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has issued a sources sought notice calling for a multidisciplinary approach to developing prophylactic protections against multiple nerve agents, degrading them before that can attack the nervous system.

To date, researchers have identified one human protein, butyrylcholinesterase—nicknamed bioscavenger—that has proved to be effective against nerve agents. DTRA in 2013 awarded Dynport Vaccine Co. a $156.6 million contract to develop a bioscavenger prophylactic and get approval for its use from the Food and Drug Administration.

But as DTRA’s Joint Science and Technology Office points out in the notice, that one known bioscavenger—which works by capturing the nerve agent as it enters the body—is pretty cumbersome, requiring a large dose of hundreds of milligrams to protect against even small levels of a nerve agent. So DTRA is looking for alternative bioscavengers that could degrade the nerve agent before it can act.

That kind of research is underway. Scientists from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a French lab in Grenoble have worked to engineer bioscavenger enzymes so that “chew up” nerve agents, Science Daily reported last year. One problem: the enzyme they used doesn’t exist in the human body, but comes from a squid, which would likely cause a human body to reject it. The researchers did note that other groups were working on a similar, human enzyme.

Another challenge, the researchers said, is getting the bioscavengers to act more quickly.

Researchers have said that such a protection, once developed, could be administered via injection, an aerosol spray or a patch. But by any means, giving warfighters a shield against nerve agents could not only prevent serious injury and death, but could also reduce the likelihood that an enemy would resort to chemical warfare.

DTRA said the goal is to develop bioscavengers and attain FDA approval. Responses to the sources sought notice are due Nov. 2.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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