Scientists develop kit to test for ricin poisoning

SINGAPORE - Singaporean defence scientists and their Australian counterparts have found a way to detect the highly poisonous chemical ricin in human beings.

The breakthrough has resulted in the world's first human test kit for ricin, just a few granules of which can cause victims to die of shock caused by lack of fluid.

The test kit was unveiled by biomedical scientists from Singapore's biggest defence research body, DSO National Laboratories, on the sidelines of a symposium on toxic substances yesterday.

Existing test kits can only detect ricin contamination in the environment.

But with the new human test kit, scientists and doctors only need two drops of blood or faeces to detect the ricin toxin, 1,000 times more poisonous than cyanide.

"The diagnostic window of between four hours and five days also makes it easier to catch the contamination more effectively," said Dr Chen Hsiao Ying, a biomedical scientist at DSO.

He said detecting ricin in humans has been quite difficult because symptoms of ricin poisoning show up as everyday ailments like diarrhoea, fever and cough.

Ricin is found naturally in castor beans that are processed throughout the world to make castor oil.

Castor oil plants are quite common in Singapore and can be found in places like the Botanic Gardens.

It was reported last year that the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was trying to produce ricin for attacks against the United States.

But scientists also noted that ricin as a weapon is limited by loss of potency in dry, sunny conditions and because, unlike many nerve agents, it is not easily absorbed through the skin.

Even so, DSO's chemical, toxins, radiological and nuclear defence programme director, Dr Loke Weng Keong, said it is better to pre-empt the danger.

"We should not be reacting only when an attack happens, because by then it will already be too late," said Dr Loke.

He added that kitchen appliances like blenders can be used to easily extract ricin.

The Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation partnered DSO in developing the test kit.

Its human protection and performance division chief Simon Oldfield said the new capability would be a boon for first responders.

Both organisations are now in the process of commercialising the test kit and expect it to be on the market in the next two years.

The ricin kit was one of the innovations showcased in the Singapore International Symposium On Protection Against Toxic Substances.

The biennial event, being held for the seventh time, runs in conjunction with the third International Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosives (CBRE) Operations Conference.

Over the next three days, scientists, military personnel and doctors will discuss how to combat CBRE threats.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who opened the forum yesterday, said bio-terrorism and disease outbreaks transcend national boundaries.

"Total protection is not feasible as threats from natural disasters are often unforeseen and the intent of terrorists is often to maim or kill in crowded public places," said Dr Ng.

jermync@sph.com.sg


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