An Illinois researcher has discovered an enzyme that can neutralize the deadly nerve gases of both the United States and the Soviet Union, according to a paper that will be published March 5 in Science magazine.
The enzyme works against both Soman, the nerve agent the Soviets have stockpiled, and Sarin, the one the United States has in its stockpiles.
If it tests out outside the laboratory, this may the first non-corrosive, anti-nerve gas material strong enough to detoxify the lethal nerve agents.
Passing the nerve gases through a filtered tube containing the enzyme will break them down into relatively harmless byproducts, says Francis Hoskin of the Illinois Institute of Technology, discoverer of the enzyme.
"The byproducts are harmless as soda pop," said Hoskin. "But I suppose as soon as I say that, someone will point out the cancer-causing potential of soda pop." In any case, Hoskins said he has drunk the byproducts without harm.
He discovered the enzyme working with squid, whose nerves are immune to the nerve gases.
Nerve agents are extremely potent poisons--no more than a speck the size of a pinhead resting on the skin can kill in two to eight minutes.
Other chemicals can detoxify nerve agents, but they are corrosive to metal and harmful to the skin.
The enzyme has the additional advantage of being a biological product that may be somewhat less likely to be rejected by the body.
The enzyme will now be studied to find out if it also eventually may:
Be developed as a quick antidote that might be injected into the body after an attack, or possibly beforehand as a preventive measure.
Be useful in detoxifying the chemical stockpiles of the nations.
Neutralize the toxic effects of nerve gas after it has been sprayed in an area or on clothing.
Dr. Shirley Tove of the Army Research Office, which funded the studies on the enzyme, says it is too early to tell how the enzyme might be most useful, but "it is very important basic research in detoxification" because there are few, if any, good defenses against nerve agents.
She said it is possible to imagine uses of the enzymes to protect or decontaminate "clothes, tanks, skin, and so on, as we would be attacked."
Hoskin said he is now plans to try to make another enzyme that will break down other potent chemicals of war, such as VX gas, another nerve agent.
Hoskin says he discovered the enzyme when he was working with the nerves of squids. He was testing the nerve fibers to see at what level they would react to nerve agents.
He kept applying more and more of the poison to the nerves, but the squid appeared spectacularly resistant to it.
At that point, he quickly went to work to isolate the chemical means the squid cells used to resist the poison. He soon found the enzyme, which he calls "squid-type DFP-ase".