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J Med Toxicol. Dec 2010; 6(4): 427–430.
Published online Jun 19, 2010. doi:  10.1007/s13181-010-0099-1
PMCID: PMC3550472

Attempted Suicide, by Mail Order: Abrus precatorius

Abstract

Objective

Abrus precatorius is cultivated in many subtropical areas. The seeds exist in a variety of colors such as black, orange, and most commonly, glossy red. A black band is found at the end of the seed. The plant contains multiple pods which typically contain three to five Abrus seeds. The seeds contain abrin, which inhibits ribosomal function, halting protein synthesis and leading to cellular death. A unique aspect of this case is the use of the internet to order a potentially lethal poison as well as transmission of a picture to identify the seed.

Case Report

A 20-year-old man presented to the emergency department complaining of vomiting and watery diarrhea for 6–8 h prior to arrival. He denied any medication use, recent illness, travel, or changes in his diet. Initial vital signs were normal. The patient was diagnosed with viral gastroenteritis. During his evaluation, the patient admitted to feeling suicidal. While awaiting psychiatry evaluation, the patient's father arrived with a box of small hard red seeds, which he believed that his son ingested in a suicide attempt. The seeds could not be identified by the staff. A picture of the seeds was transmitted by e-mail to the New York City Poison Control Center, allowing their identification as A. precatorius. The patient was reinterviewed and admitted to chewing and swallowing 10 seeds. Given the potential toxicity of abrin, the patient was admitted to the intensive care unit. He continued to have frequent episodes of emesis as well as diarrhea. He gradually improved over 2 days. He admitted to ordering a box of Abrus seeds online from Asia after reading on the Internet about their use in suicide. He was eventually discharged for outpatient follow-up with no permanent sequelae.

Conclusion

Abrin has an estimated human fatal dose of 0.1–1 μg/kg. Most cases of Abrus seed ingestions are unintentional and occur in children. Ingesting the intact seeds typically results in no clinical findings, as they pass through the gastrointestinal tract due to their hard shell. Abrin released during chewing is poorly absorbed systemically from the gastrointestinal tract. This causes the vomiting and diarrhea with resultant hypovolemia and electrolyte disturbances, which can be severe and life threatening, particularly in areas with less advanced health care systems. Management is primarily supportive.

Keywords: Toxalbumin, Abrus precatorius, Abrin, Ricin, Rosary pea, Jequirity bean

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Selected References

These references are in PubMed. This may not be the complete list of references from this article.
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