Cyanide Loses its Bite

The closest you are likely ever going to get to cyanide poisoning.

Living a political life in ancient Greek was a dangerous living, even more dangerous than vying for a spot in Congress in America today. Sure, your life is scrutinized, people making things up, the media is exaggerating or making things up to get in your way, and you can’t have any fun lest you be chastised for being human. But back then, politics often took a deadly turn.

Take Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, for example. (Wow did they know how to produce names beck then.) Ascending to the throne at the tender age of 17, Nero was caught in the middle of power plays being made on all sides.

Good thing he had a trick up his sleeve.

It was said that Nero would use chemistry to collect the essence of a plant to poison members of his family and enemies. Sounds like they were one in the same, to me. The toxin would quickly affect the target’s brain and or heart, causing convulsions, seizures, heart attacks and death, even in a matter of minutes.

It’s a good thing for Nero that he lived back when he did, because if he tried that trick in today’s world, the point he was using – cyanide – could be quickly treated. And now, thanks to work done by the University of Minnesota, it’s even less than a threat than ever.

Co-inventors Herbert Nagasawa and Steve Patterson of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design were inspired after seeing troops in the first Gulf War donning gas masks in defense of Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare agents. Decades later – science takes a long time – the duo have produced Sulfanegen, a faster-acting antidote than previously available.

Cyanide works by basically starving the cardiovascular and neural systems of oxygen. When present in the body in excess, it binds to the iron within a protein located in the membrane of mitochondria, the power factories of the cell. Once there, it prevents the exchange of electrons, thus stopping the cells from using oxygen to produce energy. And no energy equals no life.

Current antidotes have to be administered into a vein, which can be difficult when someone is thrashing about. But Sulfanegen can be injected straight into a muscle, which even Stevie Wonder could do while in withdrawal from heroin.

On a boat.

The discovery of the drug was pretty straight forward. To clear cyanide, an antidote must bind to the molecule and produce something harmless that can be swept away by natural processes. The team synthesized compounds likely to work over and over again until they found the best one.

No word yet on whether or not Q has gotten hold of some samples for 007.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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