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Scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest work on antidotes to nerve gas

North Carolina scientists are on the front lines of research on antidotes to chemical agents such as the one used in August in a deadly attack in Syria.

UNC-Chapel Hill recently announced a five-year, $4.47 million project to design a patch that would deliver a life-saving antidote to people in the event of a chemical attack. The grant is from the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a part of the Department of Defense focused on threats from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

In another project, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine seeks to build a “body on a chip,” creating a miniature lab-engineered heart, lung, liver and bloodstream on a chip to test the effects of chemical and biological agents. Wake Forest scientists will lead the $24 million effort, along with other universities, a hospital and a U.S. Army testing center. It’s funded by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center – Pacific.

Both grant awards were in the works before the attack in Syria that killed hundreds of people in August. A United Nations report this month cited evidence that sarin nerve gas was used in the Aug. 21 rocket assault outside of Damascus.

UNC-CH researchers first met with representatives from the federal agency last fall, when they talked about ways to reduce the threat of such nerve agents, said Joe DeSimone, a professor of chemistry at UNC-CH and chemical engineering at N.C. State University.

“It seems a little more timely today than it was back then,” he said in an interview.

Across the nation and North Carolina, universities are diving into research focused on national defense, homeland security, emergency management, bioterrorism and cybersecurity. Last month, N.C. State announced a $60.75 million grant from the National Security Agency to set up a lab for data analysis.

Antidote bandage

In the UNC-CH project, researchers want to create a bandage that could be applied to the skin immediately after exposure to poison gas. It would contain tiny needles measuring just a fraction of a millimeter.

“We can load them up with antidotes to nerve agent, including enzymes that combat nerve agent,” DeSimone said. “The idea was to put them directly into a dissolvable microneedle that’s painless – just a patch – and rapidly get them into the bloodstream.”

Such a device could be used by the military or civilians during an attack, when poison gas can kill within minutes. The patch could be easily disseminated and transported, DeSimone said, and would have a long shelf life.

The work will involve doctors, chemists, materials scientists and others with expertise in biodefense and distribution of medicine. “It’s really the convergence of a lot of different disciplines coming together to solve a common problem,” DeSimone said.

Similarly, experts in different fields will join to create a “body on a chip” at Wake Forest, where scientists have already grown organs in the lab that were successfully implanted in humans.

Tiny organ-like tissues, complete with a bloodstream, will be put onto a 2-inch computer chip connected to fluid channels and sensors that monitor the cells. Scientists can then study how human cells react to chemical or biological agents, such as sarin gas or ricin or the Ebola virus.

Testing toxins

Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said the team is still deciding which toxins to test, with the ultimate goal of developing better treatments.

The “body on a chip” would also reduce testing on animals, which doesn’t necessarily predict human outcomes.

“By doing this technology, we’re using actual human cells to create three-dimensional tissues and organs,” Atala said, “and then you can test the drugs against these miniature organs.”

The chip, he said, “tells us what’s happening in the organ when it’s exposed to the drug.”

Atala’s team has already created small organs; the hard part is making them large enough for humans. It should be easier to make smaller versions for testing, he said.

Joining in the new project are Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the University of Michigan, Morgan State University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

“We’re certainly looking forward to testing these organs on a chip to see how they perform,” he said.

Atala and Wake Forest were already working with the Defense Department on an initiative to reconstruct skin, muscles, tendons and other body parts for service members disfigured in battle.

Stancill: 919-829-4559
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