The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax mailings in October 2001, exposed the vulnerability of the U.S. to unconventional terrorism threats. Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents, traditionally viewed as threats to the military, rapidly became prominent dangers to public health. Consequently, the U.S. government implemented a strategy to advance the nation's medical and public health preparedness for, response to, and recovery from disasters and emergencies involving these threats.
Under the direction of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented a civilian-focused biodefense program to support the research and early-stage development of medical countermeasures. Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, medical countermeasures are products, such as biologics, drugs, or devices that may be used in the event of a potential public health emergency. These products could be included in the Strategic National Stockpile to advance national preparedness to public health threats and also be easily accessible and rapidly deployed by first responders during or soon after a public health emergency.
To learn more about CCRP, see a June 2020 article, The National Institutes of Health Chemical Countermeasures Research Program (NIH CCRP): A collaborative opportunity to develop effective and accessible chemical medical countermeasures for the American people, published in the journal Drug Development Research.
In 2006, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) established the Chemical Countermeasures Research Program (CCRP), an NIH-wide research initiative to discover and accelerate the early-stage development of medical countermeasures to treat injuries or prevent mortality after chemical exposure.
The NIH-wide extramural grant and cooperative agreement CounterACT program was subsequently created by the CCRP to support the development of a basic research discovery pipeline for medical countermeasures against chemical threat agents. Medical countermeasures discovered through NIH may be transitioned to the HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for advanced translational development.
What Is NIEHS Doing?
Developing Medical Countermeasures to Protect Lung Health
The NIEHS CounterACT program addresses the adverse effects on lung health from exposure to toxic industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents. Many toxic industrial chemicals, such as chlorine, ammonia, and ethylene oxide, not only pose a terrorist threat but may be released from transportation and storage facilities during industrial accidents and natural disasters.
Since 2006, NIEHS has supported researchers who are developing medical countermeasures to chemicals that can harm the skin and lungs, such as arsenicals, chlorine, bromine, sulfur mustard, and sarin. Researchers work to identify molecular mechanisms of toxicity, biomarkers of exposure, and relevant therapeutic targets for medical countermeasures. To this end, NIEHS supports research that includes:
- Screening assays to identify novel or improved candidate medical countermeasures.
- Cells grown in petri dishes exposed to chemicals of interest to understand biological response or changes at the cellular level.
- Animal studies that demonstrate the efficacy of medical countermeasures.
To date, the CCRP has successfully transitioned eight compounds to BARDA for continued development. Some of these compounds are:
- Tissue plasminogen activator, a drug used to breakdown blood clots, provides a promising treatment for airway obstructions caused by exposure to sulfur mustard gas.
- Drugs that block TRPV4, an ion channel in the lung, can be used to treat lung injury following exposure to chlorine gas.
- The compound R-107 can stop lung damage and increase survival in mice from 50% to 90% following exposure to chlorine gas.
Active Research Funding Opportunities
CCRP Initiative: Chemical Threat Agent-induced Pulmonary and Ocular Pathophysiological Mechanisms (R01 Clinical Trial Not Allowed). Supports basic research projects to understand mechanisms of chemical toxicity and to identify potential molecular/genetic targets that reduce acute effects of chemical threat agents that affect the lungs and eyes.
CounterACT Exploratory/Developmental Projects (R21 Clinical Trial Not Allowed). Supports exploratory and developmental projects to advance development of new and improved therapeutics to mitigate the health effects of chemical threats.
Promoting a Basic Understanding of Chemical Threats to Skin (R34 Clinical Trial Not Allowed). Planning grants to support applications that contribute to basic understanding of skin injuries caused by chemical threats to the civilian population, with an emphasis on investigating the commonalities of such injuries and identifying potential shared signaling pathways and therapeutic targets for countermeasure development.
Sri Nadadur, Ph.D.
Director, NIEHS CounterACT;
Acting Chief, Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch
P.O. Box 12233Mail Drop K3-04Durham, N.C. 27709