A team including scientists from Rutgers has designed a synthetic protein that quickly detects molecules of a deadly nerve agent that has been classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction and could be used in a chemical warfare attack.
This development could pave the way for a new generation of tailored biosensors and treatments that could be deployed against the VX chemical warfare agent, the scientists said.
As describe in Scientists progressthe team created the protein through special design on high-speed computers at Rutgers Laboratories.
“We created an artificial protein that binds to a chemical target – in this case, the nerve agent VX,” said Vikas Nanda, study author and scientist at the Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM). “We wanted to design it to generate a signal that could be coupled to a device, making it a biosensor for chemical weapons. And we managed to achieve it. »
VX is a man-made, odorless and tasteless chemical compound that is the most toxic and fast-acting of all known chemical warfare agents. It works by attacking the nervous system, causing muscle paralysis and death by asphyxiation within minutes. Since VX is classified as a weapon of mass destruction, countries are prohibited from stockpiling it. However, nations are allowed to stockpile small amounts for research.
The Rutgers team engineered the protein to have a cavity in its center that matched the precise shape and chemical composition of VX. Collaborators at the City College of New York took Rutgers’ design and produced an actual version of the protein, purified it, and shipped the sample on ice overnight to a testing center in chemical weapons licensee, MRIGlobal in Kansas City, Missouri. There, the protein was tested against VX within 24 hours.
“The protein underwent a dramatic shape change, burying VX in the cavity we engineered,” said Nanda, who is also a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “This change in shape is the signal that could be coupled to a sensing device.”
The protein, Nanda said, can detect VX at levels a thousand times more sensitive than current technologies. Additionally, the protein does not produce false positives that occur when current sensors accidentally detect similar non-neurotoxic chemicals, such as certain pesticides.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, VX or other nerve agents may have been used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Chemical weapons experts claimed that it had also been used more recently in wars and, in one case, assassination. Although antidotes are available for VX, they are most helpful if given as soon as possible after exposure.
“The design method presented here should enable the development of a new generation of biosensors, therapeutics and diagnostics,” Nanda said.
CABM graduate student Douglas Pike participated in the study. Additionally, James McCann, Mia Brown, and Ronald Koder from the City College of New York’s Department of Physics and David Crouse from Clarkson University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering participated in the study.