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What are the Medical Uses of Ricin?

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  • Written By: Autumn Rivers
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 06 December 2016
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Ricin is a type of protein that can be extracted from castor beans, and despite the fact that it is poisonous in most cases, it also has potential medical uses. Its very toxicity is what makes it helpful in treating some conditions, as it may be used to destroy certain types of cells. In fact, it is often referred to as a magic bullet to harm bad cells, which is considered useful when treating cancer, or during bone marrow transplants. Unfortunately, it is not as practical as some other treatments since it often also destroys good cells. Therefore, its medical uses are still budding as researchers attempt to figure out how to keep intact its ability to destroy bad cells, while eliminating the potential to ruin good cells.

The fact that ricin is a protein means that it can be destructive to malignant cells, but, at the same time, it can kill epithelial cells, which are needed in order to stay healthy. Researchers are working to determine a way to for the protein to only target malignant cells, but currently, the sequences that cause all cells to internalize it are widespread within this protein. Thus, researchers need to find a way to ensure that only the malignant cells internalize this protein, since using ricin, as is, can be more harmful than helpful at this point.

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Once researchers determine a way to modify the properties of ricin, it can be used to help fight cancer, as it is particularly effective at killing bad cells. It could also be used during a bone marrow transplant, as any destructive cells can be killed so that the body accepts the new marrow without incident. Unfortunately, other medical treatments that involve bacterial poisons have so far surpassed ricin, including the diphtheria toxin. Though this treatment may not be as effective as ricin at killing malignant cells, it is also not as destructive to healthy cells as this protein.

People can be poisoned by ricin when they chew castor beans since it naturally occurs in them, but it can also take other forms. For example, it can be found in a mist, pill, or powder, though it also dissolves when placed into liquid. Most cases of ricin poisoning are purposeful, since it would be difficult to accidentally ingest or inhale this protein, and it has been used in the past by terrorists as a biological weapon. Some of the most common symptoms of poisoning due to ingestion of this substance include vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, seizures, and organ failure. Symptoms of inhalation may include fever, nausea, cough, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and failure of the respiratory system.

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