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Emory professor explains ricin threat

As authorities at the offices of lawmakers in Washington and around the country scramble to test letters and packages they suspect may contain the poison ricin, investigative tools that have been developed over the past decade may finally be coming into play.

Sean Kaufman at the Emory School of Medicine is an expert in dealing with threats like this.

Working with the Centers for Disease Control in 2001, he helped lead the containment and decontamination effort at the Trenton, NJ, postal sorting facility that was ground zero in the deadly anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17. The FBI called that the worst biological attacks in American history.

Ricin is very different from anthrax, explained Kaufman, now the senior associate and director of biosafety training at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. While anthrax is a disease, ricin is a poison derived from castor beans.

“It’s fairly deadly,” he said. “Basically, what it does is it gets into cells and prevents them from making proteins they need to live. Based on that, the cells begin to die and, as a result of that, they can cause permanent or life-ending injuries.”

You can breathe it in, can ingest it, you can even be contaminated by ricin through contact with broken skin. Once you are exposed to sufficient quantities of ricin, there is no cure. Treatment options are limited to supporting the patient’s body in its own efforts to rid itself of the poison, he said.

It took more than seven years for the FBI to crack the anthrax case, even with 25 to 30 investigators working on it full time. But Kaufman said he is confident this investigation will be much different, in part because of the lessons learned more than a dozen years ago.

“We have evolved. We have learned. We learned from our mistakes. During the anthrax attacks… the reality was, there was so much we really hadn’t learned and weren’t prepared for. The time between then and now has seen enormous growth in our biological and diagnostics capabilities, including forensics,” he said.

Right now, there are experts who are not only analyzing the content of the letters sent to lawmakers in Washington and perhaps their regional offices in several states, but who are also analyzing the actual molecular signature of the poison itself. From that, Kaufman said investigators can learn how the castor beans were processed into poison and perhaps even where that processing took place.

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