Poisonous Agent X: Sensor Can Detect Deadly Nerve Agent, Even in Small Amounts | Science | New

The leader of Porton Down on the origin of the Salisbury nerve agent

The most toxic and fast-acting of all known chemical warfare agents, VX – short for “venomous agent X” – is an odorless, tasteless, man-made compound that works by attacking the nervous system. Victims of VX develop symptoms that vary depending on the extent and nature of exposure, and can manifest within seconds when exposed to VX in vapor form and between minutes and 18 hours after exposure. in liquid form. Mild or moderate exposure – which people can recover from – causes a variety of symptoms ranging from blurred vision and headaches to chest tightness and rapid breathing.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even a tiny drop of VX on the skin “can cause sweating and muscle twitching where the agent touched the skin.”

Exposure to a high dose of VX, on the other hand, can manifest as convulsions, paralysis, loss of consciousness, respiratory failure and death.

VX is one of a group of nerve agents known as the “V-series”. The first, now known as “VG”, was discovered in 1952 by chemists Ranajit Ghosh and JF Newman, and sold under the trade name “Amiton” by their employer, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), as pesticide.

Amiton was later pulled from the market after it was deemed too toxic for safe use. However, the potential of these “organophosphates” caught the attention of the British Armed Forces.

Subsequent investigation and experimentation at Porton Down, the UK’s military science park, produced four V-series nerve agents – VG, VE, VM and VX – all of which are persistent, meaning they do not degrade or wash off easily,

VX, arguably the best known of the series, is ten times more toxic than VG. It has been determined to have been used by Cuba against insurgents during the Angolan Civil War and by Iraq during the Halabja chemical attack.

VX nerve agent can now be detected more accurately and at significantly lower concentrations (Image: Public Domain/Ben Mills/Getty Images)

Porton Down Gates

VX and other V-series nerve agents were studied at Porton Down (pictured) in the 1950s (Image: Creative Commons / Sebastien Ballard)

Various countries are known to have stockpiled VX in the past – including the UK, US, North Korea, Russia and Syria – although it has since been banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

However, an exception is allowed for “research, medical or pharmaceutical purposes”. Nevertheless, attacks have been recorded with the nerve agent since then.

VX used by members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”) in 1995 to murder a 28-year-old man they suspected of being a spy, for example – and it was used to kill Kim Jong-nam , the half-brother of the North Korean leader, in an attack at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017.

Therefore, means of detecting the lethal chemical agent are still needed, especially since antidotes against VX are available and more effective if administered as soon as possible after exposure.

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Kim Jong Nam

VX was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean leader’s half-brother, in 2017 (Image: Getty Images)

Kuala Lumpur General Hospital

Pictured: Kuala Lumpur General Hospital, where Kim Jong-nam’s body rested after the VX attack (Image: Getty Images)

The new study was undertaken by Professor Vikas Nanda, protein engineer, of Rutgers University, New Jersey, and colleagues.

Professor Nanda said: “We have created an artificial protein that binds to a chemical target – in this case, the VX nerve agent.

“We wanted to design it to generate a signal that could be coupled to a device, which would make it a biosensor for chemical weapons. And we managed to achieve it. »

In their study, the team used powerful computers to engineer the protein to have a cavity in its center that matches the exact shape and chemical composition of VX.

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VX, its simulants and degradation products

Pictured: VX nerve agent, its simulants and breakdown products (Image: Advances in Science)

Members of the City College of New York-based research team then took the design and produced an actual version of the protein.

This was then shipped on ice to MIRIGlobal, an approved chemical weapons testing facility located in Kansas City, Missouri, for testing on VX samples.

Professor Nanda said: ‘The protein underwent a dramatic shape change, burning VX in the cavity we designed.

“This change in shape is the signal that could be coupled to a sensing device.”

According to the team, the protein can detect VX at levels a thousand times more sensitive than existing technologies – and, unlike current sensors, has no risk of giving a false positive reading against similar chemicals like pesticides.

Professor Nanda concluded: “The design method presented here should enable the development of a new generation of biosensors, therapies and diagnostics.”

The full results of the study have been published in the journal Science Advances.