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A nanomaterial that can help degrading nerve damaging chemicals

For normal functioning of the body, our nerves need to communicate with each other. This process, called 'nerve transmission', is mediated by specialized molecules found at junctions between nerves. Some dangerous chemicals containing phosphorous, like Malathion, Parathion and Sarin – relatives of the insecticide DDT – can affect nerve transmission.

A team from IISc has found a material which can be used to degrade the toxic chemicals that inhibit the function of an enzyme, Acetylcholinesterase, which is involved in the breakdown of the nerve transmitter acetylcholine. This in turn can lead to nerve damage, paralysis and even death. Antidotes are available for nerve agent poisoning, but they do not act on the nerve agent itself – they act either on Acetylcholinesterase enzyme or its receptor. For the treatment of the poisoning caused by these nerve agents, their complete degradation is required. Till date, several complex molecules have been utilized to degrade these compounds, but their efficiency has been low.

Rapid degradation and clearance of the nerve agents is necessary for the proper treatment of nerve agent exposure. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have discovered the potential of a nanomaterial made of Cerium-Oxide (CeO2) in degradation of these nerve agents. This material is called as 'Vacancy-Engineered Nanoceria'. The material is made by creating gaps in the CeO2, these gaps or vacancies serve as hotspots for the degradation of the toxic chemicals. This nanomaterial mimics an enzyme found in soil bacteria, phosphotriesterase, which has been shown to survive the toxicity of these toxic compounds. Investigation in the Prof. G. Mugesh’s laboratory at IISc provides the proof of concept for use of this nanomaterial though this is yet to be tested in real life conditions.

Organophosphorous compounds are used in chemical warfare, as petroleum additives, pesticides and while making plastics. Vacancy-engineered nanoceria could be utilized in the degradation of these compounds in the soil, degradation of warfare residues and purifying the water contaminated by such chemicals, says Prof. G. Mugesh, the corresponding author of the study.

“Investigation on how to rapidly deactivate the nerve agents before they reach the active site of the Acetylcholinesterase enzyme is of great importance. In this regard, vacancy-engineered nanoceria has a tremendous potential”, says Dr. Amit A. Vernekar, the first author of the study.

Taking this nanomaterial-based technology to create antidotes which would have higher efficiency than the ones available today is a possibility which is being explored in the Mugesh’s Laboratory.


About the authors

Prof. Govindasamy Mugesh is Professor at department of Inorganic and physical chemistry at Indian Institute of Science. Amit A. Vernekar was a PhD student in the department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry. Tandrila Das is an undergraduate student at Indian Institute of Science, currently working at the Mugesh’s laboratory.



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About the paper

This work was published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition. A link to the paper is below.