ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Cyanide poisoning may seem like the stuff of Cold War spy novels. But it's a danger firefighters face daily and a dreaded fear in the fight against terrorism.
Whatever the scenario, University of Minnesota scientists say they have discovered a faster antidote to cyanide poisoning that could save lives.
Researchers say they have produced a treatment, effective on mice, that neutralizes the cyanide, can be administered within three minutes and can bring recovery much faster than standard drugs. They hope to start human trials within three years.
Cyanide is a toxic compound that cripples the body's ability to use oxygen. Poisoning can trigger headaches, a loss of motor function, coma and death. It's particularly dangerous when released in building fires or other confined spaces.
Heavy cyanide exposure can kill within minutes, said Steven Patterson, associate director of the university's Center for Drug Design and principal investigator in the cyanide research, which appears in today's issue of the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.
U professor Herbert Nagasawa conceived the idea of the antidote in the late 1980s, Patterson said. It got new life after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the idea of chemical terrorism became frighteningly real. Last year, the university received a $2.5 million federal grant to study possible antidotes.
The body is naturally able to detoxify the small amounts of cyanide that surface in pitted fruits and other foods.
Patterson said the new antidote works with the body's natural protections to convert cyanide to a nontoxic substance.
Unlike current cures that have to be administered intravenously, the university's antidote can be administered orally or through injection, Patterson said.
Although terrorism might be the first application that springs to mind, firefighters might benefit most of all from the research.
There's overwhelming evidence that cyanide is present in fire smoke more often and in greater quantities than previously believed, the Providence (R.I.) Fire Department concluded last year when several firefighters were diagnosed with cyanide poisoning after a building fire.
Cyanide's effects often are blamed on carbon monoxide poisoning, but the burning of plastics, rubber, asphalt and other products means "firefighters are routinely being exposed to dangerous levels of cyanide at fires without realizing it," the report noted.
U researchers hope their discovery eventually will become part of a standard kit given to first responders in a fire or other crisis.
One tricky question: How will they test the antidote on humans without poisoning them first?
Patterson said the university will look toward two groups that already have cyanide in their bodies: people who have taken an FDA-approved drug designed to reduce dangerously high blood pressure, which contains a little cyanide, and smokers, who take in hydrogen cyanide through cigarette smoke.
Paul Tosto covers higher education and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-2119.