From Issue  Winter 2017

Combating Deadly Toxins

By: Karen Brasher

The late Howard Chambers, center, with his daughters Kristen Funck of Harrisonburg, Virginia and Cheryl Chambers of Starkville. (Photo Submitted)


Nerve agents are chemicals that affect the transmission of nerve impulses in the nervous system. All nerve agents belong chemically to the group of organo-phosphorus compounds. They are stable and easily dispersed, highly toxic, and have rapid effects both when absorbed through the skin and via respiration.

Nerve agents are among the most toxic and fastest acting of known man-made threat agents, and the seizures they induce can lead to permanent brain damage in survivors. Nerve agents inhibit a critical enzyme, acetylcholinesterase (AChE), located in the central and peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system controls the body’s organs, while the central nervous system contains the brain and spinal cord.

Current nerve agent antidotes restore function to the AChE. However, the restoration function to the nervous system is only in the peripheral nervous system and not in the brain. The nerve agent can cause degradation, up to and including permanent brain damage.

MSU scientists have a patent pending on a platform of oximes that restore AChE activity in both the peripheral and central nervous system. The antidote was developed by the late Dr. Howard Chambers, a MAFES scientist in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology.

Dr. Jan Chambers, director of the MSU-CVM Center for Environmental Health Sciences, tested the compound against chemicals similar to those found in nerve agents.

Funded through the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the National Institutes of Health, the patent covers novel oximes for reactivating butyrylcholinesterase (BChE). BChE is an enzyme made in the liver and found in blood plasma. It binds the nerve agent in the bloodstream before it can exert effects in the nervous system. Simultaneously, the oxime resets the AChE.

The patented oxime molecules may be administered to a person in need of treatment or to prevent the toxic effects of nerve agents. This is the second patent developed by the Chambers related to the reversal of nerve agent damage. Edward Meek, laboratory manager for MSU-CVM, also contributed to the patent.

Dr. Howard Chambers died December 3, 2016. His legacy will continue to live on through the undergraduate and graduate students that he mentored and the patented research which has the potential to save lives and brain function of those attacked with chemical weapons. He conducted research for 48 years in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and collaborated with his wife Dr. Jan Chambers on numerous projects.



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