At the time of this writing, the dreaded and deadly poison ricin, mailed in envelopes, was just intercepted on its way to the White House and the Pentagon. A few years ago, the same thing happened at the White House two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and a day later, parts of the Senate building were evacuated when authorities intercepted another ricin-positive letter addressed to a Senator.
There is no proven antidote currently for ricin, which is a natural poison made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans. Decades of research have gone into finding an antidote, and Austrian scientists may have recently given us a huge push toward one.
Researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) discovered two genes that might prove to be the key factors for an antidote.
These genes regulate a type of sugar found in cells called fucose. These genes, Fut9 and Slc35c1, make ricin lethal. They give ricin access to a cell’s transport systems and enables fucose to reach ribosomes—where proteins are synthesized in a cell. Fut9 and Slc35c1 can be seen as enablers that ‘drive’ ricin to a cell’s protein-making machine by attaching ricin to fucose. Fucose makes it easy for ricin to stick to proteins and annihilate ribosomes, which is necessary for a cell’s survival.
The IMBA study suggests that they may have found the Holy Grail for stopping ricin’s lethal activity. If they can inhibit Fut9 and Slc35c1 then they can obstruct the transport of ricin to a cell’s ribosomes. Because ricin poison needs fucose to access ribosomes, it prevents that access and thus, it renders ricin ineffective.
The study provides insight to the complexity of cells and gives scientists an idea of where and how a poison can enter it. These contact points can make or break the potency of a poison. The study also gives us information on a cell’s defenses and how a cell can better protect itself.
Long feared as a scary and rare weapon, ricin has been used as a biological agent for warfare. It can be made into powder—like in the letters mailed to the Senate, Pentagon and White House—or can be turned into mist or a pellet.
One of the famous cases of ricin poisoning of modern times involved the BBC journalist, Georgi Markov. Born in Sofia, Markov was a playwright and writer who defected to London in 1968 after problems with the Bulgarian communist regime.
In September of 1978, Markov was waiting at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge in central London on his way to work when a man with an umbrella gun jabbed him in the back of the leg before running away (wow, talk about something right out of a movie scene!). Within hours, Markov became seriously ill and was admitted to a hospital in Belham. He told the doctor who treated him that he believed he had been poisoned by the Soviet security agency, the KGB. His symptoms worsened, and in four days Markov died of ricin poisoning from a pellet.
Since then, there have been over 20 ricin poison attacks on record. Markov’s case has been one of the most famous, largely because of his fame and how it was cloaked under Cold War politics.
Hopefully, this IMBA study brings us closer to the antidote after all these years!
As usual, I like to provide my readers with the scientific basis for my articles. This study is published in the journal Cell Research, and you can read it here.