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Vol. LXI, No. 13
June 26, 2009

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NIH CounterACT Holds Annual Meeting to Discuss Progress

A CounterACT investigator presents her research during the poster session.
A CounterACT investigator presents her research during the poster session.

What would happen if hundreds or thousands of people were suddenly exposed to a dangerous chemical—either by act of terrorism, industrial accident or natural disaster? Do we have the best available medical technology to prevent or mitigate the often lethal effects of these chemicals?

These questions are being addressed by the NIH Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT) Research Program—a trans-NIH effort designed to enhance the nation’s diagnostic and treatment response capabilities during a chemical emergency.

The increased risk of a U.S.-based terrorist attack involving chemicals has created new challenges for many federal departments and agencies. Within HHS, NIH is taking the lead in developing new and improved ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the conditions caused by existing and potential hazardous chemicals. NIH scientists are pooling resources and sharing experiences with other federal agencies. They are also using lessons learned from previous incidents such as the one a decade ago in Tokyo, when sarin nerve gas was released by terrorists in the subway system. That event caused 12 deaths and forced 5,000 people to seek medical attention.

“The CounterACT effort—which is implemented by NINDS with the cooperation and support of other institutes including NIEHS, NIAMS, NEI, NICHD, NIGMS and NIAID—is a part of the biodefense research triad that includes the development and/or improvement of biological, chemical and radiation/nuclear medical countermeasures for the nation,” said Dr. Ernie Takafuji, assistant director for biodefense research, NIAID. “NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci spearheads this overall effort that capitalizes on the scientific and medical expertise across the NIH.”

Possible threats include warfare chemicals, toxic industrial chemicals and toxins. High-priority threats include neurotoxic agents such as organophosphorus nerve “gases,” blister-causing agents such as sulfur mustard, pulmonary agents such as chlorine gas and metabolic/cellular poisons such as cyanide.

Dr. David Jett, NIH program director for CounterACT, speaks at the group’s symposium.
Dr. David Jett, NIH program director for CounterACT, speaks at the group’s symposium.

Being prepared for potential exposure to these highly toxic chemicals requires new and improved therapies that can be used safely and quickly during a situation that could involve thousands of victims. The therapies must take effect quickly since many toxic chemicals can kill within minutes.

Launched in 2006, CounterACT was created to conduct basic, translational and clinical research aimed at discovering and identifying safer and more effective drugs and diagnostic technologies to be used after a chemical attack or other mass-casualty chemical events.

The group recently held its third annual research symposium to share information, encourage collaboration among investigators and evaluate the group’s progress, which thus far has been remarkable by all measures.

The 3-day meeting held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., included several breakout and poster sessions on such themes as nerve agents, seizure detection technology, cyanide and mustard. The symposium also featured noted scientists presenting on numerous topics including “Prevention of Inflammatory Lung Injury after Chlorine Exposure,” “Novel Therapies for Chlorine-induced Lung Injury,” “Acute Cyanide Toxicity, Complex IV, NO, and Nitrite,” “Novel Antioxidant Therapeutics for Sulfur Mustard Toxicity,” “Age and Sex Effects on Nerve Agent Damage to the Brain and Antidotal Therapies” and “Automated Seizure Detection Following Nerve Agent Exposure.”

According to Dr. David Jett, NIH program director for CounterACT, “We’ve made a lot of progress in a short period of time given the time-sensitive and daunting challenge of improving our nation’s emergency medical preparedness in this area.”

CounterACT is a network of academic, private and federal laboratories funded through Research Centers of Excellence, individual research projects, small business innovation research grants, targeted contracts and other programs. Research areas supported within the network include identification of targets for therapeutic or diagnostic development, development and validation of in vitro and animal models for efficacy screening of therapeutics and diagnostic tools, advanced efficacy and preclinical studies with appropriate animal models, and clinical studies—including trials—of new drugs.

Network investigators have identified several molecular entities that show great promise as novel targets for therapeutic discovery and development. In vitro and in vivo models for screening are being developed and validated in human and animal studies. These models have produced several novel compounds that are now being tested in animal models.

“By the end of this year, investigators will have published more than 150 articles,” said Jett, who also serves as a program director in the NINDS Office of Translational Research. “Already more than a half dozen compounds have been identified as potential new drugs. Two clinical trials have begun with support of the network and one drug that is poised for approval by 2010 is already being considered for possible inclusion in the Strategic National Stockpile—the national repository of antibiotics, chemical antidotes and antitoxins.”

For more information about CounterACT, contact Jett at or (301) 496-6035. NIHRecord Icon

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