Toxinology

About the term toxinology

Toxinology is an interdisciplinary and specialist area of the science of toxicology, which deals specifically with naturally occurring toxins, their composition and their modes of action. Unlike poisons which can also be produced synthetically, toxins (low molecular chemical compounds and complex biomolecules alike) can only be produced by living organisms, such as animals, fungi, plants and bacteria.

There is much more to the field of toxinology than the chemistry and modes of action of a toxin. Toxinology also involves the study of the biology of venom and toxin-producing organisms, the structure and sometimes the function of a venom apparatus as well as the use and ecological role of these compounds.

Nowadays, toxins are gaining in importance as research tools and as treatments for acute and chronic diseases like cancer, epilepsy and thrombosis and for their use as medication against pain and hypertension.

Toxinologie at the Spiez Laboratory

All work related to toxins in the Biology Division of the Spiez Laboratory is carried out by the Toxinology Section.

The Toxinology Section works primarily on projects that deal with substances which feature in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), in particular the protein-based plant toxin ricin and the low molecular neurotoxin saxitoxin (STX) which appear alongside classic chemical warfare agents in Schedule 1 of the CWC.

According to a list compiled by NATO, there are over 200 different toxins. Along with ricin and saxitoxin, we are currently limiting our work to botulinum neurotoxin and staphylococcus enterotoxin B, as representatives of the twelve most dangerous biological warfare agents, or ‘Dirty Dozen’, as they are also commonly known.

Apart from military issues the Toxinology Section is increasingly involved in civilian projects relating to civil protection. Many toxins cause severe food poisoning and could in extremis be used in terror attacks against the civilian population. When serious food poisoning incidents are reported, the Toxinology Section carries out random tests on food samples for the presence of toxins and thus helps doctors and authorities deal with the situation. An important project is developing and establishing an alternative detection procedure for Botulinum neurotoxins (instead of the in-vivo mouse bio-assay).

General tasks:

  • Development and conservation of expertise
  • Development and consolidation of lab detection methods
  • Evaluation und testing of commercial detection systems
  • Consultation of national instances in the event of a crisis
  • Training of specialists for the military NBC defence lab
  • Collaboration in internal apprentice training (chemistry lab technicians)
  • Operation of an accredited testing laboratory (STS 054)
  • Creation of a national reference laboratory for toxins

Head:

Marc Avondet

Staff:

Christian Müller

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European programme for the establishment of validated procedures for the detection and identification of biological toxins (EuroBioTox)