Sarin, the nerve agent causes a deadly overstimulation of the nervous system that can be stopped if treated with an antidote within minutes of poisoning. A new study has been released on the working mechanism of the drug.
Sarin is a colourless, odourless liquid fatal even at very low concentrations. Serious sarin poisoning causes visual disturbance, vomiting, breathing difficulties and, finally, death.
‘Serious sarin poisoning causes visual disturbance, vomiting, breathing difficulties and death.’
"Nerve agents are dreadful weapons, and our hope is for these results to lead to improved drugs against them," says Anders Allgardsson, Biochemist at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).
Nerve agents destroy the function of a very important protein in the nervous system called acetylcholinesterase. As long as the nerve agent is bound to the protein, the breakdown of an important signal substance is prevented. The antidote HI-6 removes the nerve agent and restores the function of the nervous system. Drugs against nerve agent poisoning have been used for a long time, still it has been unclear how they actually work.
After years of hard work, chemists are now presenting a three-dimensional structure that depicts the HI-6 moments before the bond between the nerve agent and the protein is broken. The structure gives a high-resolution image that, in detail, describes the individual positions of atoms and provides an understanding of how the bond breaks.
The scientific breakthrough was enabled by combining three-dimensional structural depictions with advanced calculations and biochemical experiments.
The calculations supported the theory that the weak signal in the X-ray crystallography data actually came from HI-6 and sarin. Important knowledge also fell into place after experiments where the system was disturbed by mutating the protein or by introducing isotopes.
"After seven years of work using many different techniques, we have finally been able to bring this to a successful close and can show a uniform picture of how HI-6 approaches sarin. It opens up for new opportunities in finding antidotes to sarin and other nerve agents by structure-based molecular design," says Anders Allgardsson.