$18 million grant from NIH funds CounterACT research center of excellence at UAB

UAB received $18 million from the National Institutes of Health to fund a counterterrorism research center on chemical weapons.
Written by: Hannah Bae
Media contact: Alicia Rohan 

CounterACTjoomlaResearch to discover pathways in which arsenicals damage the body and to identify medical countermeasures for treatment is being conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The opportunity exists thanks to a new $18 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant funds the UAB Research Center of Excellence in Arsenicals through the Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats, or CounterACT program, an NIH initiative against chemical terrorism.

The risk of chemical agents released in terrorist attacks, industrial accidents or natural disasters remains a concern in the United States and around the world. Nerve agents such as sarin have been disposed of in Alabama, including the stockpiles at the Anniston Army Depot. While most of these stockpiles around the country have been or are being destroyed, the issues of improper disposal or missed chemical-laced weapons create the possibility of future hazards to human health.

The center is a five-year commitment from the NIH, with the funds geared toward research projects to learn more about how chemical arsenicals enter and impact the body and how to reverse the effects of the agents.

“There has been very little research on the mechanisms through which these agents harm the body or the pathways that can be blocked to prevent damage,” said Lisa McCormick, DrPH, MPH, an associate professor in the UAB School of Public Health and the principal investigator of the research education core of the center. “Our three research projects are focused on the damage arsenicals, or chemicals that contain arsenic, cause to the skin, lungs and kidneys. Once we can define the mechanisms, we can work on developing drugs to block those pathways and protect those organs.”

Aside from research and drug development, the center seeks to educate the public and first responders on arsenical chemical threats, as well as potential treatments and community-based approaches on how to respond to chemical exposures.

“The public may be intentionally or accidentally exposed to these agents,” said Mohammad Athar, Ph.D., director of the UAB Research Center of Excellence in Arsenicals. “These are molecules that produce tremendous damage. The general public needs to know what could happen and what they should expect if they experience certain symptoms.”

While an introductory lecture to the community on warfare chemical knowledge and history has occurred, there will be future lectures and educational opportunities prepared for high school students and researchers. There will also be modules prepared to train first responders on what damage arsenicals cause and how to respond to them. Similar trainings are planned for members of law enforcement.

For more information on education and training events, visit the UAB Research Center of Excellence in Arsenicals website.