VCU researchers receive $4.2M NIH grant to study treatment for chemical attacks

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With the backing of a five-year award of approximately $4.2 million in total costs from the National Institutes of Health, Robert DeLorenzo and a team of Virginia Commonwealth University researchers are studying and developing ways to treat and prevent human fatalities and morbidity that could result from chemical attacks on U.S. soil.

Robert DeLorenzo, M.D., Ph.D.
Robert DeLorenzo, M.D., Ph.D.

DeLorenzo, M.D., Ph.D., the George Bliley Professor of Neurology in the VCU School of Medicine, is the principal investigator on the team that received the grant from the NIH Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats program. CounterACT supports basic and translational research aimed at identifying medical countermeasures against chemical threats.

DeLorenzo said public safety is the key goal behind the research. He is working with Robert Blair, Ph.D., and Laxmikant Deshpande, Ph.D., assistant professors in the VCU School of Medicine Department of Neurology, as well as Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D., the Eric Lipman Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine, and Matthew Halquist, Ph.D., assistant professor and laboratory director in the Department of Pharmaceutics in the School of Pharmacy.

“We’re trying to create [counteract] agents that the government can stockpile in case this type of attack happens here,” DeLorenzo said.

Foaming at the mouth, permanent neurological damage and death are some of the results of exposure to a chemical attack or nerve gas. Another result is a severe form of seizure called status epilepticus. This type of seizure can last more than 30 minutes or may manifest as separate seizures without a full recovery of consciousness in between. DeLorenzo has studied status epilepticus and epilepsy, with continuous NIH support, at VCU since 1988. Thus far, his study, which includes how to successfully treat sufferers, has focused on the molecular mechanisms involved in the seizures and the brain damage it causes.

“The CounterACT project is the continuation of us using that information,” he said. “When you get [mass] nerve agent exposure, a large number of people go into these types of seizures. It’s obvious now that terrorists can get their hands on this [weapon], and that means it is possible that they can put it in a New York City subway or other crowded areas.”  

VCU was one of a select few institutions awarded NIH CounterACT grants. The initial award amount was approximately $831,178 total costs. Researchers are currently working out of the Neuroscience Research Center inside the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Science Building. Success would be to develop effective counteract agents that could decrease death and improve the quality of life of survivors of a chemical attack, DeLorenzo said.

We’re trying to make it so that more people survive, and the survivors have fewer complications.

“We’re developing treatments that you could give to a patient, treatments you could administer,” he said. “We’re trying to make it so that more people survive, and the survivors have fewer complications such as cognitive impairment, behavioral abnormalities and the development of epilepsy. These treatments are being designed to decrease and prevent these outcomes.”

DeLorenzo’s neuroscience research laboratory has received continuous NIH funding since 1985. From 2006-2015, DeLorenzo received funding to study organophosphates, such as parathion organophosphate pesticides, which have been identified as one of the highest priority chemical threats for civilians. Acute parathion exposure can cause death, severe seizures, brain injury, cognitive deficits and epilepsy.