BOTULISM – A Paralytic Nerve Toxin

Botulism, as an accidental illness, is rare these days. More sophisticated canning homecanningprocesses and better preservation of food products have prevented this serious neurotoxin from poisoning those in the modern world.

Intentional poisonings, however, are another story. The botulism toxin (called botulinum) is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It is said to be 10,000 times more deadly than cyanide, and it’s been estimated that a lethal human dose is in the range of two nanograms. That translates to two billionths of a gram (think of a paperclip as weighing one gram). Therefore, deadly doses are not even visible to the naked eye.

There are seven types of botulism, but only three MAIN types. These are:

Food-Borne Botulism – This type of illness usually exhibits symptoms within four to 36 hours after ingesting a contaminated food product. The symptoms include dry mouth,bilateral-ptosis-1 difficulty speaking and swallowing, weakness of the facial muscles, blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, as well as nausea and vomiting. Eventual respiratory shutdown and general muscle paralysis are the usual the causes of death. It’s good practice NOT to taste test food that may have gone bad.

Wound Botulism – This from of the disease is usually seen with those who inject drugs several times a day, as with people who use heroin. The symptoms and eventual lethal outcome are similar to food-borne botulism.

Infant Botulism – Babies who consume the spores of the bacteria will develop this form of the disease. The spores grow in infant intestines and release the neurotoxin. Honey can contain botulism spores and this is often a source of the disease for infants. Honey should not be fed to babies less than one year of age.

The botulism neurotoxin is produced mainly by Clostridium botulinum bacterium. The 22_zps98330277neurotoxin is so lethal that it is listed as a potential biological weapon by the United States Department of Defense. Deliberate food-borne botulism has the potential to poison many of the population and is considered a public health risk.

Food-borne botulism is the form often used as a murder weapon and which has the potential to be used as a bio-weapon. The cause of death is usually from suffocation due to respiratory muscle paralysis.

In 2001, a civilian bio-defense group issued a consensus statement regarding the dangers of botulism. The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) has classified this toxin as a Category A Agent because of its potential as a biological agent and the fact that it can be used as either an aerosolized or food-borne weapon.

Botulinum spores are extremely hardy entities. They survive boiling temperatures for over three hours. They are resistant to ultra violet light, irradiation and alcohols. These spores are said to survive in the dry state for over 30 years and can be reactivated by heating them, so storage for future weapon use is not a problem.

The good news is that the spores may be killed by chlorine disinfectants. And about twoSyringeVialMain years ago the FDA approved a botulism antitoxin drug, which is said to neutralize all seven known forms of the disease.

Survival depends on early initiation of treatment with the antitoxin, supportive medical care (such as breathing machine support and stomach pumping) and appropriate antibiotic use. But the recovery process can be lengthy, with assisted ventilation continuing for weeks and even months after the initial symptoms occur.

However, this same neurotoxin, when prepared in dilute concentrations, is used images-1commercially to treat medical and cosmetic conditions. It amazes me, and even boggles my mind, that a substance with such destructive potential can be harnessed and used in beneficial ways.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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BELLADONNA – It’s More Than A Beautiful Woman

Often some of the most deadly substances were once used for cosmetic purposes—that is,bald-head before their lethal qualities became obvious. An example of such commercial carelessness was thallium being marketed as a depilatory agent. It effectively removed unwanted hair, but it had a rather severe side effect of killing the person in the process.

Belladonna, known as Atropa belladonna and more commonly called deadly nightshade, is another interesting lethal substance that has been used as a cosmetic throughout history.

imagesIn Roman times, diluted eye drops of belladonna dilated the pupils, which was thought to make women more seductive. And if gently rubbed on the cheeks of the face, belladonna produced an interesting reddish blush. Although these practices have fallen out of favor because they cause dangerous increases in heart rates and possible blindness, there are still commercial products available that contain belladonna.

Deadly nightshade (belladonna) is considered one of the most toxic of plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of this botanical contain toxic alkaloids. While the roots are the most deadly part, poisonous alkaloids are present throughout the plant.

Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are the main toxins in the plant and these produce extreme delirium and hallucinations. I’ve written about these alkaloids in other blogs (here and here) since they are present in some modern pharmaceuticals used for motion sickness. They have the potential for a serious interaction with alcohol to produce temporary amnesia.

The berries of the belladonna plant create the greatest danger to children sincetumblr_mh2xpaXPZf1qjwd8go1_1280 they look as attractive as fruit and have a somewhat sweet taste. Two consumed berries can kill a child, and it takes about 10 to 20 berries to kill an adult (depending on a person’s body mass).

Adding the berries to food during preparation would make for an interesting method of murder for the mystery writer searching for a simple murder weapon. A more efficient use of this plant, however, would be to use the root or a leaf to murder. It’s been documented that a single leaf of the belladonna plant can be fatal to an adult.

Atropa_bella-donna1It’s interesting to note, however, that many animals (cattle, horses, rabbits, goats and sheep) can eat the plant without ill effects, but many domestic pets are vulnerable to its toxicity.

Belladonna has been used for centuries in herbal remedies as ail_fullxfull.365492870_gexq pain reliever, a muscle relaxant, for motion sickness and as an anti-inflammatory agent. The US Pharmacopeia still lists the methodology to prepare tincture of belladonna. In medical literature, its indications for use include being an antidote for certain poisonings (such as opium and chloroform) and the deadly insecticide parathion.

So, while belladonna might be considered “old school” for deadly poisons, this toxic botanical continues to be in the top 10 list of efficient murder weapons because of its effectiveness, its relative ease of availability and because it discreetly hides in food or drink.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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ARSENIC – The King of Poisons

Virtually imperceptible in the past when used as a poison, arsenic became known as ii_b_114c“The King of Poisons” because of its lethal potency and because it was undetectable. Then the Marsh test came into use in 1836!

From that point forward, arsenic trace evidence could be identified in liquids and in food. That’s when the chemical became famous as a dramatic murder weapon and was known as the perfect poison to be used in a murder mystery.

In convincing reports, several famous people have been murdered with arsenic: Napoleon Bonaparte, Simon Bolivar and King George the 3rd of England.

The progression to death is dependent on the dose, but the initial symptoms ofmh_capd_fig26-6.tif arsenic poisoning exhibit as headaches, confusion, diarrhea and drowsiness. Often white spots or lines appear on the person’s nails. This malady is called leukonychia, a harmless condition but a definite sign of arsenic poisoning.

As the poison concentrates in the body, the symptoms progress to acute vomiting, blood in the urine, hair loss, muscle cramps and a metallic taste in the mouth. The person will have difficulty swallowing, will begin to salivate excessively and have a pale/pasty white complexion.

But people have been poisoned with arsenic without malfeasance. Arsenic is thnaturally present in the world and high concentrations can be found in ground water that people drink. A 2007 study found that 137 million people in 70 countries exhibited mild symptoms of arsenic poisoning from grains, produce and normal drinking water.

There are reports that increased consumption of arsenic causes cancer and may heighten the risk of skin, stomach and kidney cancers; but the studies appear to be inconclusive, and they have not been substantiated in the laboratory.

Current commercial uses of arsenic include it as a preservative in lumber and animal hides, in pesticides, as an additive to lead in lead-acid batteries and in glass manufacturing, and as a gas to enhance the performance of semiconductors. Some of these commercial uses, however, have been outlawed in the United States.

Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelf

Ironically, there are medical benefits to arsenic. Some studies have shown the chemical to be useful in TREATING certain cancers, sending the cancer into remission. That’s an interesting fact since arsenic was previously thought to CAUSE cancer.

And in the past, women would consume a couple of drops of arsenic to enhance their beauty. It would cause the complexion to turn white and pale.

As I’ve seen on many occasions with chemicals, there are benefits and drawbacks with any potent element. But a murder mystery writer can’t go wrong when expertly exploiting the lethal qualities of this spectacular poison!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Oleander – A Beautiful But Deadly Plant!

Drugs are designed to cure illnesses, but at times they can also become200px-Oleandrin-skeletal.svg instruments of death. And historically, many drugs originated as botanicals. Even today, many drugs and their active ingredients come from plant sources.

Awhile back, I came across an interesting report that described a drug from plant origin that can both cure and kill. As I read the article describing what is being developed from the sap of the oleander plant, I remembered what my mother used to tell me. “Stay away from the oleander. It’s poison!”

STAG_001858The oleander plant (Nerium oleander) is a common shrub found in warm Southern climates. It grows as tall as twelve feet and produces beautiful, fragrant, colorful blossoms.

Oleander is indeed a poisonous plant. The milky sap from the leaves and stems contain oleandrin, a powerful cardiac glycoside so toxic that ingesting one leaf has been reported to kill a small child. Although documentation is poor regarding the exact toxicity of the sap, it’s been estimated that ingesting 15-20 leaves would kill a normal adult (Yes, I also wonder who would enjoy a lunch of oleander leaves).

Symptoms of an overdose include gastrointestinal (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea), cardiac (interestingly, both lethal slowing and rapid increases in heart rates) and neurological (tremors, loss of muscle control, seizures).

Accidental poisoning from oleandrin ingestion can be deadly and articles are published so that physicians have established medical protocols to deal with such potentially lethal poisoning.

On the other hand, oleandrin—when properly prepared as a drug—has been used Nameless_Tomb_by_SonuMasamunebeneficially for years. In Russia and China, it is used to treat congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias. An interesting tidbit is that it is also a popular method of suicide in both of those countries. Such actions are also becoming a growing concern in Sri Lanka.

Presently, oleandrin is being studied as a promising anti-cancer treatment. Patented drug extracts are being investigated at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for various innovative treatments of cancers. Other studies have investigated the cytotoxic properties of oleandrin for treating melanomas.

As I’ve read about these new drug developments, I thought about how drugs have been used throughout the ages to cure and kill. Ancient alchemy, as a precursor to modern pharmacology, produced wonderful life-saving medicines while at the same time spawning lethal poisons for primitive weapons such as darts and arrows.

Prescription-DrugsModern pharmacology has furthered this balance of curative and lethal science in much the same way—so many ways to heal, and yet so many methods to kill. I find it especially interesting that many modern drugs have a narrow therapeutic window in that a small amount of drug is good, but a little more can be deadly.

As a writer, that gives me a multitude of plot ideas. How about you? Happy writing!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Nanoparticles to Cure—And to Kill!

Medical science in the 21st century is increasingly more sophisticated and growing exponentially. One of the more fascinating areas of medical research involves the evolution of nanoparticles.

nanotechnology-in-medicineNanoparticles are (in simple terms) small objects that behave as a unit to have common properties and to perform specific jobs. They are tiny complex particles on the scale of one billionth of a meter—mere fractions of the width of a human hair.

These particles are molecular-sized entities that can be made from almost any material: metals, plastics and a multitude of hybrid materials. The most common at present is silicon.

Because they are approximately the size of a biological molecule, they offer great potential for use in the human body to cure diseases because of their ability to transport substances on their surfaces or within their structures (think sponge-like configurations) into the body.

When used for medical purposes, they enter the body most often via intravenous injections. But advanced nanos that can be administered via an oral capsule and nanoemulsions that could be used for aerosolized nasal delivery are being developed.

In researching nanoparticle technology, I found that the subject is far-reaching and discussions of nanotechnology could be the subject of several blogs. For now, though, I’ll touch on only a few specific uses that show what could be common practice in the not-to-distant future.

Recent articles show that there is significant potential for usingNanmedicine-1 nanotechnology to target cancer cells for cures through specific delivery mechanisms. The ability to control the movement of nanoparticles in the body remotely, and with precision, has very important medical applications. Controlling where nanoparticles go in the body allows these miniature medical soldiers to have greater targeting ability to deliver a wide variety of drugs to specific areas of the body for directed therapies.

Additionally, new electromagnetic technology allows for the nanoparticles THEMSELVES to be used as therapeutic devices WITHOUT the need for additional drug components on or within the nanoparticle, thereby eliminating the potential for serious drug side effects (as seen with some aggressive chemotherapies).

imagesThe idea is actually a simple one—use magnetized nanoparticles that rotate and destroy tumor cells without harming the surrounding tissue and without the harmful side effects of chemotherapy.

Another very interesting application is the use of nanoparticles to seek out and destroy viruses. Scientists are working on nanoparticle technology that impregnates the nanos with enzymes that attach to viruses in our blood and these enzymes prevent reproduction of the virus molecule, essentially curing the viral infection.

Presently, researchers at MIT are working on a method of attaching vaccines toPersonalized-medicine-Applications-of-Nanotechnology-OmniNano-002 nanoparticles so that the nanos protect the vaccines from the body’s natural defense mechanisms, allowing the vaccines the time required to trigger a stronger immune response.

In time, nanotechnology could advance to a point that medical science will use nanos instead of genetically engineered viruses and bacteria to cure diseases. There is even a nano robot that is one nanometer in size (one billionth of a meter) and is the smallest electric motor in the world.

But, as with all technological advances, the amazing cures and enhanced qualities of life that are on the forefront of nanoparticle development could have an alternate dark side. As we’re seen with powerful herbal and pharmaceutical remedies, misuse can result in lethal outcomes. As with all good things, there can also be alternate sinister applications that spring forth from creative minds.

MP900337260I can already imagine what poisons and toxins could be delivered into the body by nanos, and what other lethal consequences could be achieved by ill-used nanoparticles entering the body not only by injection but also by the newer oral and nasal applications being developed.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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PRIONS and the Zombie Disease!

Writers-blockImagine designing a murder mystery plot using a substance that transformed ordinary people into zombies and then writing a convincing story based on the science of it all.

The victims in your story would have difficulty walking because of loss of coordination skills and severe muscle twitching. They would draw up their armszombies-1 and shiver. They would slur their speech and act agitated. They would look emaciated and sick because they’d have trouble chewing and swallowing. If this sounds like a zombie description, I’d have to give a dramatic “Yes” answer!

In reality, however, I would be describing a person with a disease known as kuru. It’s extremely rare, but always fatal. The disease reached its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s in New Guinea and is primarily a neurological disease that presents when infectious, abnormal proteins invade the brain.

These abnormal proteins are called prions—misshapen protein particles that form when normal proteins misfold and clump together.

The Fore people of New Guinea contracted the kuru disease because of their cannibalistic funeral rituals. They ate the brains of dead relatives during funeral rites. But it’s not the tribe’s cannibalism itself that caused the disease. It’s the fact that the consumed brain matter contained the prions already and they were transmitted orally within the brain matter.

Present day science tells us that prions are amyloid particles that form from PrionReplicationnormal brain proteins and may contribute to such diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Scientists describe a prion as the smallest infectious disease-causing agent and also the most indestructible biological entity.

Prions are responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (known as mad cow disease) and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. There are no generally accepted treatments for these infections and they are almost always fatal.

Initially, people with prion body accumulations in the brain experience neurological degenerations that exhibit as behavioral and personality changes, dementia and muscle coordination difficulties. The symptoms progress to convulsions and eventually to death.

Besides consuming contaminated brain matter, these encephalopathy diseases can be transmitted via blood transfusions, intravenous immunoglobulin therapies and human growth hormone treatments that have been contaminated with or contain prion bodies. Contaminated surgical instruments and organs for transplant can also transmit prion bodies.

It should be noted, however, that tests for such abnormalities have become standard practice during blood collection and prior to organ transplantation. So how could you design a murder, or a catastrophic epidemic for that matter, around the transmission of prions?

Articles that discuss the science behind a would-be zombie invasion suggest that attaching138-microscopes-lg a prion to a virus that could spread quickly and carry the prions to the frontal lobe and cerebellum could be effective. It’s been suggested that any virus that causes encephalitis would do—herpes, enteroviruses, mosquito and tick-borne viruses, rabies and even some so-called childhood diseases like mumps and measles.

Dr. Jay Fishman, Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at Mass General Transplant Center in Boston, however, states that attaching a prion to a common virus is “a fairly unlikely scenario.”

I suspect that some clever genetic alteration of a virus would be in order here to make such an event believable to create a scientifically based zombie plague or a zombie-like murder, but I’ll leave those specific details up to you.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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An Adrenaline Rush To Death!

Adrenaline is our friend! It’s one of those hormones that flood our bodies when werun severely injure ourselves, feel afraid, or do strenuous exercise. It’s known as “the fight or flight hormone” (along with some help from norepinephrine and dopamine). And it’s interchangeably referred to as adrenaline or epinephrine.

But what happens when too much pours into our bloodstream? We DIE! And that makes for a very interesting method of murder and can become the basis of a dramatic murder scene in writing.

We’ve all experienced an adrenaline rush in some form or another. From whatever cause, when our adrenal glands pump adrenaline (epinephrine) into our bloodstream, we experience: 1) a noticeable increase in strength, 2) no feeling of pain, 3) heightened senses, 4) a sudden burst of energy, and 5) our breathing and heart rate increases.

Such symptoms of extra adrenaline in our bodies may be in response to extreme fear, a life-threatening trauma (either to ourselves or others), or as a result of competitive sports participation. It helps us think clearly, react rapidly and appropriately, and dulls pain when needed. This experience is known as an “adrenergic storm” and is the basis of the fight or flight reaction.

autoinjectorAdrenaline, as an epinephrine drug, also treats severe allergic reactions since the drug narrows blood vessels to raise falling blood pressure. It also opens airway passages that may be constricted with associated wheezing. And there are auto-injectors available for people who may experience such allergic reactions.

The drug is readily available in an intramuscular auto-injector mechanism as an adultepipen dose of 0.3mg (the 1:1000 strength). Since I have asthma, I carry around an injector. I’ve not used it for an asthmatic episode, but I did use it once while experiencing a rather dramatic reaction to an antibiotic.

An overdose of adrenaline (epinephrine) flooding into our bodies can be LETHAL. At times, we’ve seen news reports of medical professionals mistakenly administering a wrong dose of epinephrine and killing the patient.

There are also reports of people using epinephrine as a weapon of murder! And the consequences of an epinephrine overdose can lead to complete cardiac arrest.

Initially, there’s a rapid onset of agitation, blood pressure spikes, the heart beats fast and irregular, slurred speech and confusion ensue, sometimes a severe headache is experienced—and then the person cascades into either a cerebral hemorrhage or cardiac arrhythmias prior to death.

Meds4_Pre-med3Treatments to prevent the fatal outcome include administration of benzodiazepines and beta-blocker drugs, but administration should be timely since epinephrine acts rapidly, especially if it is given intravenously.

So, with a readily available source, rapid onset and a deadly outcome, adrenaline could easily transition from friend to foe and provide an interesting murder weapon. And it should create a rather dramatic murder scene involving either your protagonist or antagonist.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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