The chemistry of Ricin


BY Hiya Islam

scienceEXTRACTED from the beans of castor, ricin is a toxin of great potential in bio-warfare. From Hollywood movies to real-life killings, ricin has earned its notorious fame as a bio-terror agent. Be that as it may, it is from these very spiky beans that the castor oil too is juiced out. How is it possible that the same plant (Ricinus communis) produces an elixir like castor oil and on the other hand, a human-killer known as ricin?

Ricin is naturally present in the beans. The challenge is to extract it. The beans are soaked in water to soften the tough outer coverings. And then, cooked into perfect measurement. Cooked beans are mashed and filtered to separate out the oil. The residual part or the ‘mash’ formed after oil processing is used to extract the ricin. However, the procedure which is widely available is not as easy as it sounds. For every toxin to be effective, percentage purity is a factor. In this case, purification is another obstacle to be overcome. Without specialised knowledge of chemistry it is difficult to purify the killer product. Once it’s made, the method of delivery comes into question. Ricin, based on true events, is significantly potent when inhaled or injected. Again, a powdered form is tough for a beginner to achieve. Even if you try your hand at some home-brewing, chances are that you may end up as the guy, Roger Von Bergendoff who was found comatose in his Las Vegas hotel room. He had unknowingly inhaled the ricin he produced and was sentenced to 3 years of prison after he woke up!

As it gains access to the body, ricin inhibits protein synthesis in cells. It tampers with ribosomes, the protein-making factories. Ribosomes are organelles found in the cell. After this attack, the cells are unable to form proteins necessary to sustain life and therefore, die. According to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the simple act of chewing and swallowing the savage beans will lead to an emergency visit at the hospital. Symptoms vary depending on the route of exposure and must occur within 24 hours at maximum. When ingested, vomiting and diarrhea take place or when inhaled respiratory distress and buildup of fluid in lungs follow. The blood pressure drops subsequently. The body raises its temperature- fever. There could be seizures or blood in the urine as well. Lungs, liver and kidneys stop to function. In a span of 3-4 days, the person dies.

As unfortunate as it is, no antidote for ricin has been discovered. Victims are treated to reverse the effects of poisoning. Medications to help with low blood pressure and seizures are given. Stomachs are flushed using activated charcoal. Eyes and skin are washed thoroughly with water. Appropriate measures to restore normal breathing are taken.

The only legal use of this poison is in cancer research at present. Ricin is modified with a monoclonal antibody that binds to the receptors of cancerous cells. The poison steps inside the cell as grim reaper. And once scientists find out the mechanism to solely target cancer cells, ricin can be the modern panacea for cancer.

Hiya Islam is a student of BRAC University.  


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