U of M partners with pharmaceutical company to develop cyanide antidote autoinjector

The University of Minnesota is partnering with a pharmaceutical company to design a device to quickly administer a new antidote for cyanide poisoning.

With a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers with University’s Center for Drug Design and the College of Pharmacy are collaborating with Windgap Medical to design an autoinjector. According to a release from the university, their goal is to develop a valuable tool for first responders to use in saving victims of cyanide poisoning.

The five-year grant comes from the NIH’s CounterACT program, which aims to prepare countermeasures against chemical threats that have the potential to be used as weapons. Officials report that in addition to terrorist attacks, toxic levels of cyanide exposure can also come from building fires and industrial accidents.

According to the release, the chemical kills cells in the body by preventing them from using oxygen. Symptoms of toxic exposure - which can develop within minutes - include convulsions, loss of consciousness, and possibly death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who survive cyanide poisoning are at risk for a severe neurological disorder similar to Parkinson's disease. 

Steven Patterson, a professor in the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota, has studied cyanide extensively.

“The risk of cyanide use in a terrorist attack is such that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security identifies cyanide among the highest priority chemical threats,” Patterson said in the release. “Current antidotes are not well-suited for use in a mass-casualty setting. We have long recognized that a device to deliver a cyanide antidote as rapidly and easily as epinephrine would be extremely useful. It is clear that Windgap has the technology to develop such a device."

According to the release, the work to develop a fast-acting, easy-to-administer autoinjector formulation will be based on an antidote called sulfanegen, which was recently developed and refined by Patterson as well as College of Pharmacy colleagues Robert Vince, director of the Center for Drug Design, and adjunct professor Herbert Nagasawa. The formulation was patented with assistance from U of M Technology Commercialization. 

Sulfanegen reportedly takes effect in less than three minutes, rapidly converting cyanide in the body into a less toxic compound.

In the release, officials said the autoinjector would deliver a single, preloaded dose of this antidote when pressed against the body, requiring much less time to administer than the current industry-standard cyanide treatment, which requires a person to be connected to an IV for 15 minutes. A faster treatment option during mass-exposure incidents, such as terrorist attacks or building fires, could allow first responders to save more lives before victims succumb to their exposure.

For more information on the partnership, click here.