Murder by poisoned cat stew

January 5, 2012, 3:19 pm

Gelsemium elegans

Today’s New York Times reports that the death of Chinese billionaire Long Liyuan last month was caused by poison slipped into the cat-meat hot pot on which he was dining.

Mr. Long was having lunch with a local government official, Huang Guang, whose corruption he apparently had discovered and was about to expose. Three people at the luncheon — including Mr. Huang — became sick and were hospitalized.

Police now believe that Mr. Huang slipped the toxic herb Gelsemium elegans into the stew, and ate some himself in an attempt to divert suspicion.

G. elegans is a flowering plant native to southeast Asia. It is nicknamed “heartbreak grass” because it is commonly used in that area as an agent in suicides. The plant contains several toxins, including gelsemine and gelsenicine, that block transmission at the neuromuscular junction and other sites with muscarinic or nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.

These toxins are CNS and respiratory depressants. Symptoms of poisoning begin 10 minutes to 1 hour after ingestion, and include ptosis, dizziness, ataxia, weakness, nausea, vomiting, dyspnea, and coma. Respiratory failure and death can occur rapidly. Since there is no specific antidote, treatment involves good supportive care.

Link: Two cases of Gelsemium elegans Benth. poisoning


[Addendum, 10:30 pm, 1/5/12] A 2003 animal study in J Ethopharmacol found that rats given lethal doses of a crude alkaloidal fraction of G. elegans leaves developed strychnine-like violent clonic convulsions leading the respiratory failure.  The authors suggest that this was the result of GABA-antagonism.

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