The 1988 Iraqi attack in Kurdistan, the terrorist attack on Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, the Syrian regime’s offensive in Damascus last August denounced by the UN inspectors: these are the most tragically well known examples of the use of sarin gas in conflict situations – the chemical weapons which have become, in recent years, the vanguard of terrorism and of war. A research project developed by the University of Pisa has developed a “shield” against such weapons, placing biotechnology at the heart of the battle against toxic substances.

A team of researchers has identified this new type of antibody that is able to contrast the effects toxic agents that inhibit acetylcholinesterase [AchE], such as nerve gas and powerful pesticides. The synaptic acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that regulates the action of a neurotransmitter in humans and many animals. “The blockage of this enzyme – explains Paola Nieri, professor of Pharmacology at the University of Pisa – has grave consequences on cardiac and respiratory activities. In cases of severe intoxication, death can come quickly due to respiratory insufficiencies, due to the paralysis of the diaphragm’s skeletal musculature and of intercostal muscles.”

The necessity of identifying antidotes to for nerve gas intoxication had, thus far, brought to the creation of biotechnologically derived molecules capable of intervening on the toxic agent, but which were unable to reactivate the enzyme once the blockage of acetylcholinesterase had become irriversible. The research project, born of the collaboration among the Veterinary Sciences and Pharmacy departments of the University of Pisa, and the Interuniversitary Consortium for Material Sciene and Technology [INSTM, Consorzio Interuniversitario Nazionale per la Scienza e Tecnologia dei Materiali], seems to have reached a turning point.

“The antibody – Paola Nieri confirms – suggests a new strategy geared at substituting the actions of the blocked enzyme with a molecule able of hydrolyzing acetylcholine, but which is not blocked by the use of toxic agents. Our work therefore represents an important result in the research of new antidotes against intoxication with acetylcholine inhibitors.” The antibody will not only find applications in the dramatic contexts of wars on in crisis situations ensuing terrorist attacks, but will also carry out an important function in the zoological field, given the numerous cases of intoxication for domestic and grazing animals caused by the mass use of pesticides in agriculture. 

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