University receives patent for cyanide antidote

The antidote was effective in rescuing lab test subjects who were given hyper-lethal doses of cyanide.

Helen Sabrowsky

The University of Minnesota was granted a patent for a fast-acting cyanide antidote last month, a development over a decade in the making.

While other cyanide antidotes already exist, the antidote developed by University researchers is more effective than others on the market, in part because it’s administered by injection. Researchers hope the antidote will save the lives of people exposed to hydrogen cyanide, including firefighters, industrial workers and terrorist attack victims.

Available antidotes require an IV, which must be administered by somebody with medical knowledge, said University cyanide antidote researcher Steven Patterson. Plus, treatment delivered via IV can take up to ten minutes to hit a patient’s bloodstream, and cyanide can kill in minutes, he said.

The University’s antidote uses an auto-injector — like an EpiPen — that the average person can administer, Patterson said.

Retired University professor Herbert Nagasawa first thought up the idea for a fast-acting cyanide antidote during the first Gulf War, Patterson said, but Nagasawa couldn’t get funding for the project.

After 9/11, the U.S. government became more concerned about the possibility of a chemical attack and established grant programs for those studying chemical antidotes. The University received one of these grants to study cyanide antidotes in 2006, Patterson said.  

The University’s development has been effective in several laboratory studies, he said. Additionally, researchers have rescued lab test animals from hyper-lethal doses of hydrogen cyanide, compared to available antidotes that failed to save test subjects.

Others that survived after receiving the available antidotes showed signs of a neurological deficit similar to Parkinson’s disease, a common and lasting effect of cyanide poisoning. The subjects given the University’s antidote showed none of these signs.

Researchers hope the new antidote will be more effective in treating those who suffer from cyanide poisoning from smoke inhalation, which can impact firefighters. Available antidotes worsen the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, which means they’re not effective in treating smoke inhalation victims, Patterson said.

Bryan Tyner, assistant chief of administration at the Minneapolis Fire Department, said while the MFD doesn’t encounter hydrogen cyanide often, easy-to-administer treatments are always beneficial.

Researchers are optimistic that the availability of a fast-acting antidote will decrease the likelihood of death from hydrogen cyanide. Still, antidotes rarely deter attacks, as terrorists focus more on causing fear rather than bodily harm, said Michael Rozin, a University professor specializing in threat intelligence.

At the same time, terrorists have used chemical attacks in the past, and evidence shows some terrorist organizations have the capability to use chemical weapons today, Rozin said.

The newly patented cyanide antidote is awaiting approval for public use, and the treatment looks promising, Patterson said.

“Our ultimate goal [is to] contribute to safety and peace,” he said.