Protection of red blood cell acetylcholinesterase by oral huperzine A against ex vivo soman exposure: next generation prophylaxis and sequestering of acetylcholinesterase over butyrylcholinesterase

Chem Biol Interact. 2008 Sep 25;175(1-3):380-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cbi.2008.04.033. Epub 2008 May 3.


As part of a phase Ib clinical trial to determine the tolerability and safety of the highly specific acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor huperzine A, twelve (12) healthy elderly individuals received an escalating dose regimen of huperzine A (100, 200, 300, and 400 microg doses, twice daily for a week at each dose), with three (3) individuals as controls receiving a placebo. Using the WRAIR whole blood cholinesterase assay, red blood cell AChE and plasma butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) were measured in unprocessed whole blood samples from the volunteers following each dose, and then for up to 48h following the final and highest (400 microg) dose to monitor the profile of inhibition and recovery of AChE. Significant inhibition of AChE was observed, ranging from 30-40% after 100 microg to >50% at 400 microg, and peaking 1.5h after the last dose. Gradual recovery of AChE activity then occurs, but even 48 h after the last dose red blood cell AChE was about 10% below control (pre-dose) values. Huperzine A levels in plasma peaked 1.5h after the final 400 microg dose (5.47+/-2.15 ng/mL). Plasma BChE was unaffected by huperzine A treatment (as expected). Aliquots of huperzine A-containing (from three individuals) and placebo blood samples were exposed ex vivo to the irreversible nerve agent soman (GD) for 10 min, followed by removal of unbound huperzine and soman from the blood by passing through a small C(18) reverse phase spin column. Eluted blood was diluted in buffer, and aliquots taken at various time intervals for AChE and BChE activity measurement to determine the time taken to achieve full return in activity of the free enzyme (dissociation from the active site of AChE by huperzine A), and thus the proportion of AChE that can be protected from soman exposure. Huperzine A-inhibited red blood cell (RBC) AChE activity was restored almost to the level that was initially inhibited by the drug. The increased doses of huperzine A used were well tolerated by these patients and in this ex vivo study sequestered more red blood cell AChE than has been previously demonstrated for pyridostigmine bromide (PB), indicating the potential improved prophylaxis against organophosphate (OP) poisoning.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholinesterase / blood*
  • Administration, Oral
  • Aged
  • Alkaloids
  • Butyrylcholinesterase / blood*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Erythrocytes / drug effects*
  • Erythrocytes / enzymology
  • Humans
  • Sesquiterpenes / administration & dosage*
  • Soman / pharmacology*


  • Alkaloids
  • Sesquiterpenes
  • huperzine A
  • Soman
  • Acetylcholinesterase
  • Butyrylcholinesterase