All for Joomla All for Webmasters

German patient is immune to highly poisonous ricin

TOP STORIES / Science German patient is immune to highly poisonous ricin

Ricin is one of the strongest poisons in the world. But not for this 20-year old man in a hospital in Münster: Doctors have found out that an inherited metabolic defect protects him from the deadly compound.

It only takes a few milligrams of ricin to kill you.

When inhaled, injected or ingested, the compound will inhibit the body's capability to synthesize proteins, resulting in failures of the central nervous system, kidneys, liver and other organs.

Death by circulatory shock or organ failure typically occurs within a few days. So far, no clinically-tested antidote exists. And what makes matters even worse: ricin is quite easy to come by as it can be isolated from the seeds of the castor oil plant.

Ricin has been classified as a bioweapon, and has been used several times in murder or terrorist attack attempts.

One famous case was the assassination of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov. He was killed on Waterloo Bridge in London in 1978 when, allegedly, a passerby touched him with the tip of an umbrella, injecting a ricin pellet into his leg.

The legend of the umbrella murder was born.

Georgi Markov (picture-alliance/dpa)

Umbrella murder: Georgi Markov was assassinated with ricin in 1979

But there are a few people who would have survived the attack – and one of them is a patient at University Hospital Münster in western Germany.

A very special patient

Hospital staff call him Jakob: He is 20 years old and has been treated at the hospital since he was born preterm in 1997.

"There was always something wrong with his health," Jakob's mother told German press agency dpa.

Jakob had to have several surgeries and was suffering from a fever.

"We just couldn't understand where this fever came from," said Jakob's doctor Thorsten Marquardt, head of the department for inherited metabolic diseases at University Hospital Münster.

Castor-oil plant seeds(picture-alliance/blickwinkel/fotototo)

Castor-oil plant seeds contain extremely poisonous ricin

The doctors finally figured it out: Jakob has a genetic defect which prevents him from metabolizing the sugar fucose.

"We know of only two other people in the world with the same defect," Marquardt said, adding that both of them live in Israel.

A void in a sugar molecule called fucose renders their cells immune against ricin – just like Jakob's cells.

Why a lack in sugars makes people immune

Once inside the human body, ricin binds to sugar molecules which are attached all over our body cells'surfaces.

As long as the poison stays outside the cells, everything is fine.

"It becomes a problem as soon as ricin binds to receptors, which constantly turn over between the outside and the inside of a cell," Johannes Stadlmann, researcher at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, told DW. "With the receptors' help, ricin gets transported into the cells."

There, ricin has access to all the cells' vital machinery and starts blocking the synthesis of essential building blocks.

Stadlmann and his colleagues discovered that the sugar fucose changes the appearance of receptors in such a way that ricin can bind to them easily.

The more fucose there is, the more poisonous ricin becomes.

castor oil plant (picture-alliance/blickwinkel/C. Huetter)

Castor oil plants produce ricin to protect their seeds from being eaten by animals

Switching immunity on and off

The Vienna researchers learned of Jakob's condition and asked Thorsten Marquardt in Münster to send over some samples of Jakob's skin.

It all fit together.

"His cell surfaces don't contain any fucose at all," Stadtmann told DW. "That's why he is immune to ricin."

His metabolic defect has taken his toll on Jacob, though. When the doctors finally realized what was wrong with him, his natural development was already irreparably impaired: He has problems walking and speaking. Nowadays, he receives a fucose supplement, providing him with the sugar his body urgently needs.

According to his doctors, the treatment improved his quality of life, but as Stadlmann points out, it also has a side effect: As long as he receives the treatment, ricin once again becomes poisonous for him.

Temporarily immune

In mice experiments, Stadlmann and his team revealed that they can induce ricin immunity. When they injected mice with a fucose inhibitor, the animals became temporarily immune.

mouse in the lab (picture-alliance/dpa/Marks)

Mice can be made immune against ricin

Stadlmann points out that it was quite hard to get approval for this kind of animal experiment, though.

"In the end, we were only allowed to feed the animals a very small ricin dosage," he said –just enough to see an affect on the animals without killing them.

The results clearly showed that animals – and probably humans as well – can be rendered immune against ricin with a simple injection. But it only works prophylactic. Once someone has ingested or inhaled the poison, it's too late.

The researchers hope that their work will also help with the development of an antidote.

From lab to reality

Stadlmann never met Jakob in person but he remembers the day when he first saw the boy's picture which Marquardt had sent him.

"This photo really touched my heart," the sugar researcher says.

Seeing the patient that actually had to live with a condition that Stadlmann helped to analyze in the lab was a special moment.

"It was beautiful to see that all this was connected to sugar molecules," he says. "And it is great that in the end this knowledge could actually help a patient."

  • Cannabis Marihuana (Fotolia/Opra)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Cannabis – smoke it or wear it

    The cannabis plant contains the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It makes people feel euphoric and relaxed and can also alleviate pain. The flowers of infertilized female plants contain particularly high amounts of THC, that's why they are taken for producing marihuana. Some cannabis species do not contain any THC at all and are grown for fiber production.

  • opium poppy (picture alliance/dpa/D.Ramik)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Better than aspirin

    Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) produces – you guessed it – opium. To harvest it, you simply incise the capsules and let the white latex exude and dry. Opium contains high amounts of morphine, the strongest existing pain medication. A chemical variation of morphine provides the semi-synthetic drug heroin.

  • Pluteus salicinus (picture alliance/dpa/Wildlife)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Fancy a magic mushroom?

    Mushrooms are chemical artists – some of them even produce psychoactive substances. Among them: this grey-coloured Pluteus salicinus. It grows on wood and contains psilocybin, which causes visual and mental hallucinations similar to LSD. Side effects are nausea and panic attacks.

  • Chewing on a coca leaf (Reuters)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Drug snack to go

    Leaves of the coca plant harbour chemical compounds similar to cocaine. They alleviate pain and act as stimulants. In many countries in Latin America, chewing on raw coca leaves is quite common. It helps tourists deal better with altitude sickness, too. By fermenting and drying the leaves and processing them chemically, cocaine is produced.

  • Angel's trumpet (picture alliance/dpa)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Beautiful poisonous flowers

    Angel's trumpets are beautiful to look at but you should refrain from tasting them. All parts of the plant contain alkaloids – chemical compounds with strong effects on the human body. When you eat or smoke the plant, your heart rate will increase and you will start to hallucinate. As with all natural drugs, finding the right dosage is difficult. Deadly accidents occur quite often.

  • Datura inoxia, Datura inoxia, toloache, thornapple (picture-alliance/blickwinkel/R. Koenig)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Bummer with thornapple

    On the internet, poisonous Datura plants – also known as thornapples – are advertised as natural drugs as well. Really not a good idea: The plant induces strong hallucinations, sometimes with a complete loss of reality. People tend to hurt themselves severely under its influence.

  • Argyreia nervosa, Hawaiian baby woodrose, elephant creeper, wooly morning glory (picture-alliance/blickwinkel/R. Koenig)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Hawaiian Babies

    Argyreia nervosa is native to Asia, even though the plant is called Hawaiian baby woodrose. The seeds of this climbing vine contain ergine, a compound similar to LSD. It causes colourful visions and euphoria but also nausea, prickling and psychoses. Overdosing can happen easily as one seed alone already has a strong effect.

  • Peyote cactus (picture-alliance/WILDLIFE)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Ecstasy with cactus

    The peyote cactus in Mexico and Texas is full of mescaline, a hallucinogenic compound that is illegal under the international Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Mescaline alters thinking processes and one's sense of time and self-awareness. The cactus is cut into pieces and eaten or boiled into a tea. The cactus species is now listed on the Red List as vulnerable.

  • Myristica seeds (picture alliance/CTK/R. Pavel)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Beware of nutmeg

    Nutmeg in high amounts can act as a drug, since it contains the hallucinogenic compound myristicin. But don't worry: you'll never reach the necessary dosage if you only use nutmeg as a spice. Getting high on nutmeg seems a bad idea anyway, as side effects include headaches, nausea and diarrhea.

  • Mitragyna speciosa (picture-alliance/Arco Images/Sunbird Images)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    Psychedelic leaves?

    Yes, it's true: the evergreen kratom tree (Mitragyna speciosa), native to Southeast Asia, incorporates the opioid-like compound mitragynine into its leaves. In traditional medicine, the leaves are chewed to relieve pain, increase appetite and treat diarrhea. But they can also be used to mix drug cocktails.

  • tobacco plant (picture alliance/ZB)

    Mother Nature's drug lab

    One of nature's most dangerous killers

    The tobacco plant produces poisonous and addictive chemicals, such as nicotine and other alkaloids, and harbours them inside its leaves. With this poisonous cocktail, the plant tries to ward off animals that might want to eat it. When the leaves are dried and smoked, the chemicals enter the human body – together with many cancerous substances generated by burning tabacco.

    Author: Brigitte Osterath

DW recommends

WWW links

Original Source. All Rights Reserved. View Disclaimer and Copyright Notice.