The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has awarded a $1.9 million grant to researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) to develop a new therapy to protect service members from nerve agent exposure.
Nerve agents affect nerve impulses that can cause death by making it impossible to breath. Nerve agents are made up of the same chemicals as insecticides, but are delivered in an activated form designed to kill or cause illness.
Steven Hinrichs, M.D., professor and chair of the UNMC Department of Pathology and Microbiology, and Oksana Lockridge, Ph.D., professor in the UNMC Eppley Cancer Institute, are principal investigators on the grant.
Over two and a half years, researchers will develop a formulation of a molecule called Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) into an intramuscular injection, and prove its safety, effectiveness and dosing in animal models. They also will demonstrate its ability in dried form to retain activity for at least two years, and produce the substance for other research studies.
BChE, which is found in human plasma, is a bioscavenger and when it finds nerve agent in the blood, it deactivates it.
Following successful results, researchers will seek Food and Drug Administration approval followed by commercial production. Once research is complete, making it available for commercial use could take two to four years.
“The idea is military troops would administer the medication two to four hours before going into an area where nerve agents may be used,” Dr. Hinrichs said. “The medication would protect against nerve agents for up to two weeks.”
Dr. Lockridge has been studying BChE for 40 years and is the world’s leading expert on the subject. She has developed a method to extract and purify BChE as a pre-emptive therapy.
“We know how to purify it and dry it down to a powder, so it’s stable for years. And it works,” Dr. Lockridge said. “You don’t need a lot to protect you. It’s very potent but has no side effects.”
Dr. Lockridge’s expertise is in high demand. The molecule is expensive to make and buy. “People can’t afford to buy it. We developed a way to produce it in a more cost effective way,” Dr. Hinrichs said. “We want to make it more affordable for researchers to work with.”
Dr. Hinrichs said UNMC has hopes that the success of the study also will demonstrate how research conducted at UNMC can be translated from an experimental therapeutic program into a pharmaceutical product.
“We hope this can be spun out as a prototype for new industry creation and new job creation in Nebraska,” Dr. Hinrichs said. “We’re laying the groundwork. If we can start a company or a company springs up around this, that’s even better.”
The study is part of the university’s partnership with the U.S. Strategic Command and the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI). NSRI is a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center with the University of Nebraska campuses.
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