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Indian Journal of Pharmacology 2000; 32: 94-101




Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Defence Research and Development Establishment,
Jhansi Road, Gwalior, 474 002, India.
Manuscript Received: 13.10.99

Accepted: 2.2.2000


Cyanide is ubiquitously present in the environment. It is considered as a potent suicidal, homicidal,

genocidal and chemical warfare agent. Cyanide toxicity is mediated through inhibition of cellular respiration,
but its other complex toxic manifestations are also well documented. There are a number of antidotes
available for cyanide poisoning (e.g. sodium nitrite, 4-dimethyl aminophenol, sodium thiosulphate, etc .),
however, there is still uncertainty about their safety, efficacy and correct indication for use. This review
provides a comprehensive account of toxicology of cyanide and the present status of various antidotes
employed clinically or pursued experimentally.


Cyanide poisoning

cyanide antagonism

Cyanide is regarded as a notorious poison dating
back to antiquity. Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) was first
isolated from cherry laurel by Swedish chemist, Karl
Wilheim Scheele in 1782 and in 1786 he was feared
to be the first victim of this rapid poison1,2. Later in
1795 Fontana investigated its mechanism of action,
followed by Blakess attempts to antagonise its toxic
effects. However, molecular basis for the biochemical mechanism of cyanide antagonism was first demonstrated in 1933 only3. The ubiquitous existence of
cyanide in the environment is associated with the
toxic gases produced by pyrolysis of plastic or nitrile-based polymer fibres, ingestion of extracts of
plants containing cyanogenic glycosides (e.g., cassava) or inhalation from industrial or occupational
causes (e.g., electroplating). Administration of certain drugs (e.g., sodium nitroprusside and laetrile)
also release cyanide when metabolised in the body.
Cyanide poisoning also results from exposure to
aliphatic nitrile compounds ( e.g. acetonitrile) or by
dermal absorption /ingestion of cyanide salts and
aliphatic nitriles. Its notoriety as a suicidal, homicidal
and genocidal agent is well known2,4-7. Use of HCN
as a potent chemical warfare agent is also well
documented 8. Cyanide is a very rapid poison which

impairs the cellular respiration leading to a cascade

of events culminating in cell death. There are a
number of antidotes available for cyanide poisoning.
However, their safety, efficacy and correct indication
for use are frequently being debated9. This article
provides a comprehensive account of the toxicology
of cyanide and the current status of various antidotes
employed clinically or being pursued experimentally.
It is not easy to determine what are the lethal doses
of cyanide to man. Human cyanide poisoning is associated with a mortality rate of 95% 1. Taken orally
the fatal dose of HCN to adult is estimated at 50100 mg, and for potassium cyanide (KCN), about 150250 mg10. However, victims ingesting as much as 3
g of KCN have been saved with immediate therapy9.
Inhalation of HCN at a concentration of 270 ppm (approximately 0.3 mg HCN per litre) will be immediately fatal. Victims having a blood cyanide level of
2.5-3.0 g/ml frequently succumb to respiratory cessation within 20-30 min of exposure or may survive
even upto 3 hr 9,10. The morbidity or mortality depends
upon the magnitude of poisoning, which varies with
the dose and form of cyanide and the route of poisoning 9.



The clinical picture of acute cyanide poisoning varies in both time and intensity depending upon the
magnitude of exposure. Various non-specific signs
and symptoms like headache, dizziness, nausea,
vomiting, confusion, coma and incontinence of faeces and urine occur10. Physiologically a series of
events like dyspnoea, incoordination of movement,
cardiac irregularities, convulsive seizures, coma and
respiratory failure may occur leading to death 4,5,7,10.
Pathologically no particular lesions can delineate
cyanide toxicity, albeit animal experiments indicate
that the lesions are principally in the central nervous
system, predominantly necrosis in the white matter5,6,10. Probably the most wide-spread pathologic
condition attributed to chronic cyanide poisoning is
tropic ataxic neuropathy following cassava consumption11.

carboxylase and 2-keto-4-hydroxy glutarate aldolase

involving formation of a cyanohydrin intermediate6.
Therefore, cyanide toxicity may not be attributed
solely to a single biochemical lesion but a complex
phenomenon. The primary site of action of cyanide
is presumed to be the central nervous system (CNS).
In acute cyanide poisoning a rapid inhibition of cytochrome oxidase results in an energy deficit within
the target tissue13,14. Additionally a number of other
enzymatic processes are inhibited which exacerbate
the toxicity14,15. This includes antioxidant defence
enzymes (catalase, superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase). Cyanide is also potent
stimulator of neurotransmitter release both in the CNS
and peripheral nervous system16. All of these events
contribute to the acute toxic syndrome17. Subacute
or chronic cyanide poisoning is characterized by prolonged energy deficit, loss of ionic homeostasis and
oxidative stress leading to CNS pathology18.



The toxic effect of cyanide is attributed predominantly

to the production of anoxia following inhibition of cytochrome oxidase, a terminal mitochondrial respiratory chain enzyme. This enzyme contains two heme
A and two copper ions. Cyanide has a special affinity
for the heme ion and the reaction of cyanide with the
multimeric iron enzyme complex is facilitated by first
penetration of cyanide to protein crevices, with initial
binding of cyanide to the protein followed by binding
of cyanide to heme ion. Thereby, a cyanide-heme
cytochrome oxidase complex is formed which
renders the enzyme incapable of utilizing the oxygen4-6,10. The resultant oxygen saturation of the blood
imparts a cherry red colour, which aids the diagnosis in most instances of cyanide poisoning. Inhibition
of cytochrome oxidase results in interruption of electron transport chain and the oxidative phosphorylation. Resultant anaerobic metabolism with severely
decreased ATP generation and concomitant increase
in lactic acid production eventually leads to tissue
hypoxia and metabolic acidosis12-14. The inhibitory
properties of cyanide may be ascribed to its ability to
complex with metals. Besides, iron containing cytochrome oxidase, there are other metallo-enzymes
containing molybdenum, zinc or copper which are
equally sensitive to cyanide. Other mechanism for
cyanide inhibition may be attributed to its affinity to
Schiff base intermediates, e.g. ribulose diphosphate

Cyanide produces a rapid onset of toxicity which must

have vigorous and immediate treatment to prevent
the toxic syndrome. To obtain better protection, a series of newer antidotes either alone or in adjunction
with the conventional treatments have been examined3-5,17. Their mechanism of action, efficacy and
toxicity have been reviewed as part of a joint IPCS
(UNEP, ILO, WHO)/CEC project to evaluate antidotes
used in the treatment of cyanide poisoning19. A wide
variety of compounds have been used as cyanide
antidotes and they have been classified into four
major groups based on their mechanism of action:
(i) scavengers, (ii) detoxification, (iii) physiological and
(iv) biochemical17.
These are compounds that inactivate cyanide by
binding it or by forming methaemoglobin, which in
turn sequesters cyanide.
a. Methemoglobin formers: The basic aim of rapid
detoxification of cyanide is prevention or reversal of
inhibition of cytochrome oxidase by cyanide. This is
usually accomplished by providing a large pool of
ferric iron in the form of methemoglobin to complex
cyanide. Cyanide preferentially competes with the
Fe+++ of methemoglobin as compared to that of cytochrome oxidase, and eventually binds with the former


to form cyanmethemoglobin3-5,20. Thereby, the activity of inhibited cytochrome oxidase is restored. The
various methemoglobin formers employed as cyanide antidotes are discussed below.
Amyl nitrite: Inhalation of amyl nitrite as a first aid
measure to cyanide poisoning is known for many
years3-5,9,19. However, the efficacy of amyl nitrite as
methemoglobin inducer remained disputed on account of its inability to generate methemoglobin
greater than 6% 20,21, while about 15% is required to
challenge one LD50 dose of cyanide9. Now the protective effect of amyl nitrite is attributed to its
vasodilatory effect that can reverse the early cyanide induced vasoconstriction 9,19. Artificial ventilation
with amyl nitrite broken into ambu bags has been
reported as a life saving therapy in cyanide poisoned dogs, prior to induction of significant level
of methemoglobinemia22.
Sodium nitrite: Sodium nitrite (SN) is the most prevalent drug of choice for cyanide poisoning 3-5,23. When
given intravenously (i.v.) it takes about 12 min to generate approximately 40% of methemoglobin 9. Inspite
of this delay in inducing a significant level of methemoglobinemia, a reasonable protection offered by SN
can be ascribed to its vasodilatory property19. A serious drawback with SN is that i.v. administration may
be accompanied by serious cardiovascular embarrassment, particularly in children, for whom an adjusted dose is recommended24. Since SN induced
methemoglobinemia impairs oxygen transport, it cannot be recommended for fire victims where in most
instances HCN exposure is accompanied by carbon
monoxide poisoning. Since carbon monoxide also
impairs oxygen carrying capacity of blood, administration of SN would further aggravate the hypoxic condition. SN is also not advised for individuals with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficient
red cells because of possibility of serious hemolytic
4 - Dimethylaminophenol: The relatively slow rate
of methemoglobin formation by SN prompted the development of rapid methemoglobin formers like
aminophenols. 4-dimethylaminophenol (DMAP) is the
treatment of choice for cyanide poisoning in Germany.
A dose of 3.25 mg/kg., i.v. of DMAP was reported to
produce methemoglobin level of 30% within 10 min
and 15% methemoglobinemia was attained within
one minute without any immediate effect on cardio-


vascular system25. However, there are differences in

individual susceptibility to DMAP which may result
in an undesirable levels of methemoglobinemia even
after normal therapeutic doses26. Intramuscular injection of DMAP results in local abscess and fever.
Its clinical application remains limited on account of
its other toxicological implications like nephrotoxicity27. Co-administration of a reduced dose of rapid
methemoglobin inducer like DMAP and a slow inducer like SN were also found to be an effective pretreatment against acute cyanide poisoning. This regimen by virtue of a protracted optimal level of methemoglobinemia provided sustained prophylaxis in
Other methemoglobin formers: Hydroxylamine
(HA) was yet another rapid methemoglobin
inducer29-31 that was endowed with an anticonvulsive
property32. In view of cyanide induced convulsions
and the toxicity of DMAP, the efficacy of HA coadministration with SN was also examined in rats33.
Although, this regimen minimised the cyanide induced convulsions, it was less effective as compared
to SN+DMAP treatment. In addition to prophylaxis,
co-administration of SN and DMAP or HA were also
effective therapeutically34, but their extrapolation to
humans warranted caution in view of the persistent
toxicity of these regimens35,36.
The cardiovascular implications and poor pharmacokinetics of SN led to evaluation of yet another group
of methaemoglobin formers viz. aminophenones and
-aminopropiophenone (PAPP), derivatives [
aminooctanoylphenone (PAOP), -nitrosopropiophenone (PNPP) and -hydroxy aminopropiophenone (PHAPP)]. Out of all these agents PAPP
was the most effective as prophylaxis37,38. Another
alternative treatment of cyanide poisoning, involving
stroma free methemoglobin solution (SFMS) was proposed by Ten Eyck et al 39.Intravenous administration of this solution did not impair the oxygen carrying capacity of blood as caused by most other
methemoglobin formers and directly sequestered
cyanide to protect a 4 X LD90 dose of sodium cyanide in rats. Efficacy and safety of this antidote remains to be determined in larger animals.
b. Cobalt containing compounds: Cobalt ion which
forms a stable metal complex with cyanide is an effective therapeutic agent against cyanide poisoning 3-5,40. Various cobalt containing compounds known



to antagonise cyanide poisoning are discussed

Dicobalt edetate (Kelocyanor): This agent (300 mg
of dicobalt edetate in glucose solution; i.v.) is the current treatment of choice in France and United Kingdom. Serious side effects like vomiting, urticaria,
anaphylactoid shock, hypotension and ventricular
arrythmias have been reported in patients receiving
Hydroxocobalamin (Vitamin B 12a): This agent is
perhaps the most promising cyanide antidote used
in human toxicology9. With the exchange of hydroxy
group of hydroxocobalamin for cyanide, non toxic
cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12) is formed. However,
use of this antidote remained limited on account of
the large dose required to challenge cyanide poisoning. An injectable solution of hydroxocobalamin (5 g
in water) is now available in France and Germany. In
France a 4g hydroxocobalamin solution in 80 ml of
sodium thiosulphate (STS) has also been developed.
Recorded side effects of hydroxocobalamin includes
anaphylactoid reactions and acne19,40.
Other cobalt compounds: Cobaltous chloride,
cobaltous acetate, cobalt histidine and sodium cobalt nitrite are also reported to antagonise cyanide
poisoning. However, none of them has been used
c. Cyanohydrin formers: Cyanide is a nucleophile
known to react with various carbonyl moieties like
ketones and aldehydes to yield cyanohydrin derivatives3-5. Sodium pyruvate was reported to effectively
challenge acute cyanide poisoning in mice41. Another
-ketocarboxylic acid like -ketoglutaric acid (
is currently being pursued widely as a cyanide antidote42-45. Protective effect of -KG was also observed
against cyanide induced convulsions in mice46. KG either alone or in combination with SN and/or
STS attenuated toxicity in mice exposed to cyanide
through different routes47. Prophylactic or therapeutic ability of -KG was also shown to be augmented
by oxygen48. Cyanide induced histotoxic hypoxia was
reversed by -KG which was found to be more effective than cobalt edetate and sodium pyruvate49. Although, clinical trials of this agent as cyanide antidote has not yet been conducted in humans, based
on the promising results in experimental animals, it
is presently envisaged as a potential antidote for cya-

nide poisoning. It is considered safe as oral form of

-KG is sold as an over-the counter nutritional supplement (Klaire Laboratories, San Marcos, CA)45.
Under this group those agents are listed which
enzymatically detoxify cyanide by converting it to a
relatively non-toxic product which is readily eliminated
from the body. The reaction can be catalyzed by augmenting the levels of the enzyme endogenously or
by supplementing the enzyme exogenously or, by
providing more substrate to the enzyme, which in
this case are sulfur donors. The major mechanism
of removing cyanide from the body is its enzymatic
conversion by the mitochondrial enzyme rhodanese
(thiosulphate-cyanide sulfur transferase, EC
to thiocyanate. Transulfuration of cyanide is also facilitated by -mercaptopyruvate-cyanide sulfur transferase (EC The enzymatic conversion of
cyanide to thiocyanate requires a source of sulfane
sulfur (a divalent ionised sulfur bound to another
sulfur atom) which is usually offered by thiosulfates
or other biological compounds containing sulfane
sulfur, like polythionates, thiosulfonates, persulfides
etc.50. It is presumed that the sulfane sulfur binds
first to the serum albumin to yield sulfane sulfur albumin complex which eventually reacts with cyanide
to form thiocyanate5,50. Exogenously administered
thiosulfate usually in the form of STS would supplement this reaction rapidly. STS alone administered
i.v. may be sufficient in moderate cases of cyanide
poisoning while severe cases of poisoning may necessitate co-administration of other antidotes, preferably SN9. STS is contra-indicated in patients with
renal insufficiency as the thiocyanate formed may
cause toxicity19. Endogenous augmentation of rhodanese has not been worked out extensively but exogenous supplementation has been reported to
accelerate the transulfuration of cyanide to thiocyanate51-54. However, stability and sensitivity of the
enzyme remains to be addressed.
Oxygen appears to be a physiological antagonist.
Oxygen alone at hyperbaric pressure has slight protective effect in cyanide poisoning but it dramatically
potentiates the protective efficacy of SN and/ or STS5.
This protective mechanism is not yet clear because


inhibition of cytochrome oxidase by cyanide does not

deplete the availability of oxygen, only cellular utilisation of oxygen is impaired. It is presumed that intracellular oxygen tension may be high enough to
cause non enzymatic oxidation of reduced cytochrome or oxygen may displace cyanide from cytochrome oxidase by mass action55. During transulfuration there is accumulation of sulphite (SO3-2) which
inhibits the progress of the reaction. It is proposed
that oxygen accelerates the oxidation of sulphite,
thereby enhancing cyanide detoxification56.
The compounds classified as biochemical antidotes
have largely unexplained mechanism of action and
are also regarded as non-specific antidotes. These
compounds are usually not very effective per se but
as adjuncts significantly augment the efficacy of conventional antidotes. A few chemicals belonging to this
class of antidotes are discussed below.
Chlorpromazine: The potent vasodilatory action of
nitrites prompted the examination of vasogenic drugs
as cyanide antagonist. Chlorpromazine a neuroleptic phenothiazine, was found to significantly potentiate
the efficacy of SN and STS combination in cyanide
toxicity5. Its protective effect was attributed to its adrenergic blocking property57. Subsequently, the
antidotal activity of chlorpromazine was related to its
ability to sustain cellular calcium homeostasis and
maintenance of membrane integrity by preventing
peroxidation of membrane lipids1,58.
Other agents: Other -adrenergic blocking agents
like phenoxybenzamine and various autonomic
drugs, vasodilators such as papaverine, organic nitrates and anti-histaminic compounds have shown
some antidotal efficacy in cyanide poisoning 5. Cyanide induces respiratory cessation mediated through
inhibitory action of released endorphin. Therefore,
stereo-specific opiate antagonist (-) naloxone hydrochloride was found to protect against cyanide induced
lethality in mice59. Role of neuronal calcium in cyanide induced neurotoxicity and beneficial effects of
chlorpromazine and calcium channel blocker
(diltiazem) are also well documented1,58,60. The recent
thrust to develop mechanistic based antidotes against
cyanide poisoning has identified some new classes
of lead compounds like calcium antagonists, non-hypnotic barbiturates, anticonvulsants, adrenergic block-


ers, antipsychotics, nitric oxide generators, other

neuroprotective drugs, antioxidants, plasma expanders, glycolytic substrates, carbonyl compounds
etc.5,17,61-64. Many of these drugs have not been used
clinically in humans but their results in experimental
animals or in vitro are quite encouraging.
A retrospective examination of various cyanide antidotes reveals that there is no unanimity of opinion
regarding the efficacy of a particular treatment regimen. This is mainly due to different experimental
conditions, test protocols and species of animals
employed in evaluating various antidotes. Adoption
of a particular treatment in a country is dictated by
various factors including the regulatory bodies and
the legislations. There is no global unanimity on this
issue, like SN and STS combination is the drug of
choice for cyanide poisoning in U.S.A. and many other
countries, France and U.K. have adopted kelocyanor
while Germany is still continuing with DMAP and STS
combination. However, SN (10 ml of 3% solution) and
STS (50 ml 25% solution) combination is still the most
prevalent treatment in cyanide poisoning. Artificial
ventilation with 100% oxygen via Ambu bag containing the contents of two ampoules of amyl nitrite (0.6
ml) is usually practiced as the first aid therapy. The
use of antidote should be restricted to patients in deep
coma with respiratory insufficiency. Supportive
therapy of diazepam i.v.(3 x 10 mg) and 4.2% sodium bicarbonate solution to correct the convulsions
and metabolic acidosis respectively have also been
used in human poisoning. To revert excessive methaemoglobinaemia i.v. administration of 30 ml of 1%
methylene blue solution is also recommended9.
There are diverse approaches to antagonise cyanide
toxicity. However, full expression of antidotal potency
of a regimen principally lies on clinical presentations
and the immediate judgement. With the resurgence
of interest on cyanide antidotes a more effective prophylactic or therapeutic regimen can be anticipated
in near future. Considering the rapidity of cyanide
poisoning, objective of further research is not to replace the established antidotes completely but to
augment their efficacy to a significant level or evolve
new regimens with enhanced efficacy and safety
which is acceptable with global consensus.



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A Professor Remembers
Professor P.C. Dandiya. Emeritus
Professor and Advisor. Robert
Heilig Library. S.M.S. Medical College, Jaipur, talks of his days in
Jaipur. He recalls life in Jaipur in his
early childhood when the Maharaja
found a third wife. He also narrates
his stay in Lucknow. Varanasi,
Toront, Libya and New Delhi and
dwells on his impressions on the
freedom movement, the Second
World War and the Muslim Connection.
He traces the introduction of new
drugs from 1943 and writes about
his experience with LSD, the drug
which was largely misused in the
Sixties and Seventies.
Vallabh Prakashan
SU-221, Pitampura, Delhi-110 034.
Price: Rs. 350/-