Wednesday, June 18, 2014

UT, ORNL Scientists' Discoveries Could Help Neutralize Chemical Weapons

UT, ORNL Scientists' Discoveries Could Help Neutralize Chemical Weapons: Researchers at UT are a step closer to creating a prophylactic drug that would neutralize the deadly effects of the chemical weapons used in Syria and elsewhere. Jeremy Smith, UT-ORNL Governor's Chair and an expert in computational biology, is part of the team that is trying to engineer enzymes-called bioscavengers-so they work more efficiently against chemical weapons.

The work is a joint effort between scientists at UT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and a French national laboratory in Grenoble. Their study was published recently in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

Nerve agents, such as sarin, are among the most highly toxic chemical weapons. The study focuses on engineering enzymes that catalyze the hydrolysis of nerve agents as a prophylactic approach to diminishing their toxic effects.

"Enzymes exist that can potentially chew up nerve agents and render them useless before they've had time to act, but they need to be improved to work faster," Smith said.

The researchers are using neutron scattering and computational sciences to study these nerve agent bioscavengers. Neutron scattering allows the scientists to get a detailed three-dimensional view of the enzymes. Computer simulation then uses this view to understand how the enzymes break down the nerve agents.

"The simulations produced an unexpected result," Smith said. "The enzymes break down sarin in an unusual way. Now we can use that result to engineer them rationally."