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Biomedical and Biodefense Uses for Ricin

Ellen Vitetta


Ricin is mostly known for its potential as a biological weapon, but it’s possible to deter its use and to use it for human well-being:

  • as an immunotoxin, effective in treating various cancers
  • for medical research because it is abundant and easy to manipulate
  • to make a safe and effective vaccine to protect troops and the public against a bioterrorist attack

March 2006

How can we use nature’s poisons to our benefit?

Ricin can be harnessed for biomedicine.

Ricin is a protein toxin that is extracted from the castor bean. Photo: Agricultural Reasearch Service, USDA.

Vitetta: Most people know that ricin is a potential biological weapon, but it can also be harnessed for biomedicine. My research involves using a portion of the ricin toxin to develop a new class of therapeutics, called “immunotoxins.” Over the past few decades, immunotoxins have been taken from discovery to clinical trials in patients with a variety of cancers. In addition, emerging from this medical work was the development of a new and effective vaccine against ricin, which completed its first successful clinical trial in 2005. The vaccine was safe and induced antibody production in human volunteers.

The highly toxic ricin is easy to get and use.

Ricin, a natural toxin, is a byproduct of castor oil production. Ricin is very easy to obtain, with an estimated 50,000 tons available in the world today. Castor beans grow wild everywhere, and you don’t really need a whole lot of expertise to purify it. In fact, you don’t even need to purify it. If you mash up castor beans you basically get a crude toxin powder that is very stable. Ricin can be used to contaminate food, water, or air and in high enough levels is fatal when ingested or breathed in. Anyone can pull up information on the Internet about ricin production—sad but true. The fact that it is easy to get, easy to work with, and so toxic makes it very worrisome. It is quite different from something like anthrax, where you must have the scientific know-how to make it.

One immunotoxin combines antibodies with ricin.

Immunotoxins are made by linking a tumor-seeking antibody to a portion of the ricin toxin. [An antibody is a protein molecule that defends the body against germs or harmful compounds; some antibodies are synthetic]. Once bound to the cancer cell, it is internalized and kills it, but because the antibody targets only cancer cells, it spares normal cells. When you think of the damaging side effects of current cancer therapies and other therapies for viral disease, such as HIV, immunotoxins offer a promising alternative. They are the “magic bullet” immunologist Paul Ehrlich envisioned in the 1900s, where a therapeutic agent could be delivered directly to abnormal cells without much effect on healthy cells.

Plants and bacteria are other immunotoxin sources.

We can find sources for immunotoxins in nature. In addition to the castor bean, there are other plants, such as pokeweed. Bacterial toxins are also known. Our lab chose ricin, not only because it’s easy to obtain, but also because the structure is easy to work with. We knew we could separate the A and B chains of the protein to get a very toxic subunit A chain that we could manipulate to attach to an antibody and create a specific delivery system.

Clinical cancer trials using ricin-based immunotoxins are encouraging. Immunotoxins have potential for treating Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Have any of your experiments proven successful?

Vitetta: They have been very successful, in mice and in humans. We can cure mice with tumors by using the appropriate dose and dose regimen of immunotoxins. Clinical studies in human cancer patients are ongoing and encouraging. But it will take time to realize the full potential of immunotoxins and get them FDA approved.

Dr. Ellen Vitetta is a professor of microbiology and director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center, and she holds the Sheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunobiology, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. She has published hundreds of papers and edited several books and is coinventor on 12 issued patents. Over the past 25 years, she has developed antibody-based “biological missiles” to destroy cancer cells and cells infected with HIV. She is currently involved in the clinical testing of a ricin vaccine. Vitetta’s former graduate student, Linda Buck, shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with Richard Axel.

Biomedical and Biodefense Uses for Ricin

Ricin Cancer Therapy Tested

Read a BBC article about U.S. and the U.K. advances in the field.

Ricin Cancer Therapy Tested

Read a BBC article about U.S. and the U.K. advances in the field.

Articles about ricin vaccine

Protein structure

The first link takes you to images of structure, the second to a textbook-style explanation.

About Paul Ehrlich and his “magic bullet” idea

The 1908 Nobel laureate envisioned compounds that would seek out disease-causing organisms and destroy them.

Bioterrorism agents

CDC has a concise list of classified agents that could be used by terrorists.

American Cancer Society

Get information about cancer and how you can join the fight against the disease.

United for a Stronger America: Citizens’ Preparedness Guide

US Department of Justice publication describes steps citizens can take to protect families and communities against terrorism.

For educators and students: PredictProtein

When you submit any protein sequence, PredictProtein retrieves similar sequences in the database and predicts aspects of protein structure and function.


Understanding Science