Abrin is a toxin found in the seeds of Abrus precatorius or rosary pea, a plant native to tropical regions. This toxin can cause severe injuries, and may lead to death even with rapid medical intervention. There is no antitoxin for abrin poisoning, and treatment is focused on supporting the patient as his or her body processes the toxin.
Abrin is closely related to ricin, an infamous plant toxin which attracted global headlines when it was used in the Tokyo Gas Attack. This toxin, however, is much more dangerous. This plant toxin attacks cells from the inside, inhibiting the synthesis of proteins in the cell and causing the cells to die. As abrin penetrates the body, it causes tissue death, which leads to organ failure and eventual death for the patient. Death from abrin exposure can occur in hours or days, depending on the method of exposure and the amount of the toxin ingested.
Although abrin is extremely dangerous, there are no recorded instances of cases in which the toxin has been utilized in biological warfare. Most cases of abrin poisoning occur by accident when people are exposed to the plant. The brightly colored black and red seeds of the Abrus precatorius are sometimes used in necklaces and other jewelry, and the toxin is highly stable, so people may be exposed through contact with the beads years after the seeds have been harvested. For example, if the beads are broken and people inhale the dust, they can develop abrin poisoning.
This toxin can be absorbed through the skin, the respiratory tract, and the gastrointestinal tract. Usually the first symptoms occur at the point of exposure. For example, someone who has inhaled abrin may develop pulmonary edema and other respiratory problems, while someone who has ingested it may develop vomiting and diarrhea. Exposure through the skin can start with a rash and skin inflammation.
When someone is exposed to abrin, steps should be taken to get as much of the toxin out of the system as possible, and then to provide supportive therapy to keep the patient stable. Treatment needs to be provided in a hospital setting. If there is any reason to suspect poisoning with this toxin, whether through accidental or intentional exposure, when someone is brought to a hospital for treatment, doctors and nurses should be made aware so that they can provide the most appropriate treatments and therapies.