Cyanide is a simple chemical with a name that evokes images of suicide pills and mystery novels. But it’s actually used in mining and for making dyes and plastics. Every year, there are a few industrial incidents of accidental poisoning. And the possibility that a terrorist could use cyanide was brought home in 1995, when a container filled with sodium cyanide and sulfuric acid was found in a Tokyo subway station. It was designed to be broken by remote control. Had it been detonated, hundreds of people would have been exposed to the same mixture used in Nazi gas chambers.

Until now, there has not been an effective, fast-acting antidote. Existing antidotes to cyanide poisoning — for example, hydroxocobalamin, a form of vitamin B12 — are typically administered via intravenous drip over a period of 15 minutes. But cyanide can kill much faster than that and setting up IVs takes time. In a situation with mass casualties, what’s needed is something that an be administered quickly, by a first responder, to many people in succession.

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Steve Patterson, associate director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design, and his team have created a antidote that can be given with a simple injection. The new antidote is based on a chemical called sulfanegen triethanolamine (TEA). The sulfanogen allows the body to convert the cyanide to a much less toxic chemical called thiocyanate. And it works in minutes.

Patterson told Discovery News that the original idea came from Herb Nagasawa, a colleague at the Center for Drug Design. Nagasawa had identified the pathway that renders cyanide less harmful; Patterson and his team found a way to make the sulfanogen water-soluble so it could be injected.

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One advantage of the new antidote is that it can be made in large quantities with relatively simple chemistry, Patterson noted. That means it can be given to first responders. The antidote has been tested in mice; Patterson said his group is in discussions with the FDA about further testing. So it will be some time before it is available to the public.

The discovery was published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Medical Chemistry.

Credit: Andy King / Wikimedia Commons