Toxicological Reviews

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 53–64


Mechanisms of Cytotoxicity


  • Michael J. Lord
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Nicholas A. Jolliffe
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Catherine J. Marsden
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Cassandra S. C. Pateman
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Daniel C. Smith
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Robert A. Spooner
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Peter D. Watson
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
  • Lynne M. Roberts
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Warwick
Review Article

DOI: 10.2165/00139709-200322010-00006

Cite this article as:
Lord, M.J., Jolliffe, N.A., Marsden, C.J. et al. Toxicol Rev (2003) 22: 53. doi:10.2165/00139709-200322010-00006


Ricin is a heterodimeric protein produced in the seeds of the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). It is exquisitely potent to mammalian cells, being able to fatally disrupt protein synthesis by attacking the Achilles heel of the ribosome. For this enzyme to reach its substrate, it must not only negotiate the endomembrane system but it must also cross an internal membrane and avoid complete degradation without compromising its activity in any way. Cell entry by ricin involves a series of steps: (i) binding, via the ricin B chain (RTB), to a range of cell surface glycolipids or glycoproteins having β-1,4-linked galactose residues; (ii) uptake into the cell by endocytosis; (iii) entry of the toxin into early endosomes; (iv) transfer, by vesicular transport, of ricin from early endosomes to the trans-Golgi network; (v) retrograde vesicular transport through the Golgi complex to reach the endoplasmic reticulum; (vi) reduction of the disulphide bond connecting the ricin A chain (RTA) and the RTB; (vii) partial unfolding of the RTA to render it translocationally-competent to cross the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) membrane via the Sec61p translocon in a manner similar to that followed by misfolded ER proteins that, once recognised, are targeted to the ER-associated protein degradation (ERAD) machinery; (viii) avoiding, at least in part, ubiquitination that would lead to rapid degradation by cytosolic proteasomes immediately after membrane translocation when it is still partially unfolded; (ix) refolding into its protease-resistant, biologically active conformation; and (x) interaction with the ribosome to catalyse the depurination reaction.

It is clear that ricin can take advantage of many target cell molecules, pathways and processes. It has been reported that a single molecule of ricin reaching the cytosol can kill that cell as a consequence of protein synthesis inhibition. The ready availability of ricin, coupled to its extreme potency when administered intravenously or if inhaled, has identified this protein toxin as a potential biological warfare agent. Therapeutically, its cytotoxicity has encouraged the use of ricin in ‘magic bullets’ to specifically target and destroy cancer cells, and the unusual intracellular trafficking properties of ricin potentially permit its development as a vaccine vector.

Combining our understanding of the ricin structure with ways to cripple its unwanted properties (its enzymatic activity and promotion of vascular leak whilst retaining protein stability and important immunodominant epitopes), will also be crucial in the development of a long awaited protective vaccine against this toxin.

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© Adis Data Information BV 2003