An effective antidote for botulinum toxin, one of the world’s most feared biological weapons, is being developed.
A single gram of the poison can kill hundreds of thousands of people, according to defense experts.
Botulism from food poisoning affects many people each year, however, a different form of the toxin, known as botox, is used in cosmetic ways to relax wrinkles in the face.
Researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York, and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), Maryland, have broken through a barrier towards developing an effective antidote against the most potent form of the toxin. The US government is funding the study.
A protein has been developed that blocks the effects of the toxin by tricking it into not attacking cells in the body, researchers say.
“We anticipate at least four to five years before this can be turned into an approved drug,” said biologist and research leader Subramanyam Swaminathan.
Seven different neurotoxins are produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacterium that attach to proteins inside human nerve cells and block the chemicals they use to communicate with each other and with muscles””resulting in paralysis in breathing muscles causing victims to suffocate.
Scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory developed the new protein that acts on the most powerful of these seven toxins, for which there is no medical treatment.
The protein prevents paralysis by acting as a decoy to proteins in the nerve cells, meaning the toxin chooses not to attach itself to the nerve cells when it enters the body.
“It is about 10 to 15 times better than the best one available so far,” said Subramanyam Swaminathan.
Vaccines that counter botulinum before an attack already exist, but the current research could develop a drug that would work after exposure.
The US government has proposed increasing funding for research into defense against bioweapons such as botulinum to $9 billion in 2009″”a rise of more than 5% on the previous year.
Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist cult, tried three times to acquire the botulinum toxin between 1990 and 1995, but the toxin has never been successfully used as a bioweapon.
Iraq also reportedly produced thousands of liters of the toxin before the Gulf War in 1991.
The US team’s findings appear in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
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