Sulfur mustard, commonly known as “mustard gas,” was first used as a chemical warfare agent during the Battle of Flanders in July 1917. Since then, it has been repeatedly deployed in various conflicts, causing significant harm without any known antidote for treatment. However, a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from South Dakota State University has paved the way for an effective approach to treating sulfur mustard poisoning. Their findings have been published in the esteemed journal ACS Bio & Med Chem Au, offering hope for the countless victims of this devastating chemical weapon.
Professor Brian Logue of SDSU’s Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Physics has been at the forefront of this research. Having served in the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense as a bioanalytical chemist, Logue has a deep understanding of chemical and biological warfare agents. His experience in the military laboratory propelled him to investigate potential antidotes for sulfur mustard exposure. Upon joining forces with Assistant Professor Rachel Willand-Charnley in 2019, the team intensified their research efforts to find a viable treatment.
Sulfur mustard earned its infamous reputation as the “King of Battle Gases” during World War I. Its effectiveness as a combat weapon resulted in a staggering 33,000 deaths and over 600,000 injuries during the war. Beyond its significant impact in WWI, sulfur mustard has continued to be used in conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Its ability to penetrate through the skin, respiratory system, conjunctiva, and gastrointestinal system allows it to cause both immediate and long-term effects on its victims.
Immediate exposure to sulfur mustard gas leads to a bitter taste in the mouth and a smell of garlic, as reported during the Iran-Iraq War. Victims then experience headaches, loss of vision, blistering, and bleeding skin. The long-term consequences, which can manifest up to 40 years after exposure, include pulmonary, ophthalmic, and dermatologic complications. Sulfur mustard disrupts chemical structures such as proteins and DNA, leading to severe damage and incapacitating the affected individuals. This overwhelming impact puts immense strain on the medical system, underscoring the urgent need for an effective treatment.
Unlike other chemical weapons that target a single enzyme, sulfur mustard has multiple mechanisms of attacking the body. This complexity poses a significant challenge in finding an antidote. Previous research by Brian Logue indicated that a neutralizing molecule could potentially be effective in treating skin exposure to sulfur mustard. Enter organic and biochemist Rachel Willand-Charnley, whose expertise was instrumental in developing a groundbreaking therapeutic solution.
A Promising Breakthrough: Methimazole
After extensive research, the team identified methimazole as a molecule with the potential to selectively react with sulfur mustard without damaging the skin. Methimazole demonstrated a level of reactivity that could make it a suitable treatment option. Armed with this discovery, the researchers are now preparing a grant to further their research on living organisms. Their ultimate goal is to make this treatment widely available to individuals exposed to sulfur mustard.
The promising results from this study have paved the way for further investigation into the efficacy of methimazole as a treatment for sulfur mustard injuries. Ongoing in vivo studies are currently underway to evaluate the therapeutic’s effectiveness. If successful, this groundbreaking treatment could bring relief and hope to countless individuals affected by sulfur mustard exposure.
The research conducted at South Dakota State University represents a significant breakthrough in the field of sulfur mustard poisoning treatment. The discovery of methimazole as a potential antidote offers hope for victims of this devastating chemical weapon. With further research and efficacy studies, it is possible that this groundbreaking treatment may soon be widely available, providing relief to those affected by sulfur mustard exposure.