Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have created every soldier’s dream: the ability to live through a nerve gas attack via artificial introduction of mutated enzymes that strengthen the body naturally.
Nerve gas is one of those agents that cause death by asphyxiation by disrupting transmissions and commands from the nervous system to the cardiovascular and skeleto-muscular systems. The gas inhibits an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, whose breakdown is what causes muscles to function normally. Current treatment methods are only effective with small doses and have serious negative side effects. This has led scientists to look to the body’s natural defenses, which up until recently have proven too slow in their reaction time to be an effective course of treatment.
However, Professor Dan Tawfik of the Weizmann Institute’s Biochemeistry Department may have the answer. Tawfik and his team of researchers have successfully modified a natural occurring enzyme known as PON1 so that it will effectively and efficiently battle nerve gas. The enzyme, which prevents atherosclerosis, was found to also successfully break down the compounds used to create nerve agents.
Tawfik’s process was to artificially inducing evolution of PON1 so that it will work at an improved rate. Those mutated cells were then tested with nerve gas and acetylcholinesterase to see if they degraded the nerve agent before it degraded the acetylcholinesterase. Upon experimentation, they found that in most cases the acetylcholinesterase did not degrade or cease functioning and that PON1 was in fact a winner.
Dr. Tawfik and his group have successfully used mutated enzymes to defeat two different types of nerve gas. Their experiments yielded a near 100% success rate as a preventive treatment against nerve gas. They have now shifted their focus to focus on two new goals: To expand the PON1’s effectiveness against other nerve agents and to develop newer, more efficient enzymes that could work post-exposure, a breakthrough which would completely revolutionize how nerve gas victims are treated.
Although Tawfik and his team have made a remarkable discovery and are cautiously optimistic, additional research will be performed as the selection and mutation process is a slow arduous one and PON1 is not always effective.