The seeds and root of the Abrus precatorius, Linné.
COMMON NAMES.—Wild liquorice, Indian liquorice, Jequirity.
ILLUSTRATION: Bentley and Trimen, Med. Plants, 77.
Botanical Source.—A twining shrub, bearing rose-colored papilionaceous flowers, clustered in long, one-sided racemes. The shrub attains a height of from 10 to 15 feet. The leaves are compound, abruptly pinnate, borne on a short petiole, and are divided into from 20 to 30 linear or oblong leaflets of a pale-green color, glabrous, entire and obtuse. The fruit is a long, oblong, rhomboid legume, containing from 4 to 6 seeds. The pod is a little over an inch in length, and terminates in a short beak.
History.—In India the root is official as a substitute for liquorice root, though Dymock (Mat. Med. Western India) denies the statement made by Ainslie and others that the root exactly coincides with that of common liquorice, and that it is sold for that drug in the Bengal bazaars. He states that the root bears but little resemblance to the liquorice root, but that the leaves are sweeter and may yield a fairly good extract. He further says that true liquorice root can be so easily collected and is so abundant as an article of commerce in Bombay that the substitution of abrus for that drug would be both inexpedient and expensive. This plant is known in Bengal as gunj, gunja, goontch, kunch, and gurgonje, and is called ratti in Hindustan. Though varying slightly in weight, the seeds are used by the Indian goldsmiths as standard weights, 1 gunja being equal to about 1.84 gr. Troy. According to Dutt a gunja is equal to 2 grains of wheat, 3 of barley, 4 of rice, or 18 mustard seeds. Abrus seeds are the agents by which the Chamàr or "Native Skinner" caste of India carry on the felonious poisoning of cattle for the purpose of securing their hides. This is done by means of small spikes, called sui (needles) or sutari (awls), which are prepared by soaking the awl in a thin paste of the water-soaked, pounded seeds, and then drying the weapon in the sun, after which it is oiled and sharpened upon stone, affixed in a handle, and then used to puncture the skin of the animal.
Abrus has been used for centuries by the Hindus, who employ the seeds as an external application in skin affections, ulcers, and to excite artificial inflammation in fistulae. Sanskrit authors mention both the white and red seeds, and describe the root as an emetic. Mahometan writers speak of its aphrodisiac qualities. As early as 1592 Alpinus found the Egyptians using the seeds for beads, and occasionally eating them, though they considered them unwholesome as food. It is asserted that Indian singers chew the leaves of the white-seeded variety for the cure of hoarseness. The seeds, under the native name of jequiriti or quequiri, were introduced into modern medicine from Brazil, where they have long been in use among the natives as a remedy for pannus and trachoma. The shrub is indigenous to India and Brazil, and is naturalized largely throughout the tropics. The drug was introduced into England in 1862, where it excited but little attention until revived by DeWecker in 1882.
Description.—SEMEN ABRI.—Crab's eye, Prayer beads, Jumble beads. Jequirity seeds are about one-fifth inch long, subspherical, hard, and of a glossy-scarlet color, with the exception of a black spot surrounding the hilum. They have a taste somewhat resembling common beans and are without odor. Dymock mentions white, purple, yellow, and blue seeds, of which only the white is common.
RADIX ABRI.—The root is twisted, long, and cylindrical, varying from 1/4 to 1 inch in thickness; reddish-brown externally, the internal or woody portion being yellowish. It is porous and breaks with a short, fibrous fracture. The bark is thin. The root has but little odor, that being somewhat disagreeable at first, but is bitter and acrid to the taste, afterward slightly sweetish, resembling, to a slight extent, that of common liquorice root.
Chemical Composition.—According to Berzelius, a substance closely resembling glycyrrhizin may be obtained from the leaves and branches. The root contains both this principle and sugar. By treating the seeds with boiling alcohol Warden (1882) obtained an inert, white, crystalline body, slightly soluble in cold water, which has been named abric acid (C12H24N3O). A mixture of proteid principles, of a light slate color, called abrin, was also obtained by Warden, of Calcutta, which, according to Buffalini (1886), is a violent cardiac poison. This body is found also in the root and stems. Rigaud and Dusart (1883) succeeded in getting an alkaloid from the seeds (thought, however, to be a decomposition product), which contain also a fixed oil, lecithin, and cholesterin. No irritating principle has yet been isolated from the seeds unless it should prove that two proteid bodies, one a paraglobulin, the other an albumose, are the active agents. According to Sattler the violent action of jequirity depends upon a "pathogenic micro-organism," developed in the infusion, which has the physiological property of vegetating upon the conjunctiva, thereby developing a ferment which is capable of producing the artificial inflammation. Warden and Waddell, however, believe the activity to be due, not to a bacillus, but to a soluble ferment embodied in abrin, as they have found the latter substance to be much more active than the seeds. Abrin is probably the same body as Bruylant's and Vinneman's (1885) jequiritin. Moist heat is said to render it inactive. Whatever may be the exciting agent, it is known that the infusion used must be at least a day old, as the freshly made preparation is totally incapable of producing the purulent condition known as "jequirity ophthalmia."
Timothy J C tells me that it takes only very few crushed seeds to kill a man. And that abrin is one of the strongest poisons on earth. -Henriette
Action and Medical Uses.—The seeds when taken into the stomach of man are said to be wholly inert. Large quantities of them are eaten by the Hindus to prevent fecundity. Half a seed rubbed in a little water, thrown into the thigh of a cat, caused the death of the animal in less than 24 hours (Warden). Jequirity kills the lower animals, acting somewhat like septicaemia, not unlike that produced by serpent venom. An infusion of the strength of 1 to 20 instilled into the eye of a rabbit produced a violent inflammation, resulting in complete destruction of that organ and gangrene of the lids. A false membrane was created with much oedema and corneal ulceration. The salivary glands became swollen, destructive suppuration of the maxillary glands taking place. Hypodermatically injected under the skin of animals, it produced gangrenous abscesses, and when thrown into the blood induced "virulent tonical phenomena" (Carnil and Berlioz, 1883). The infusion applied to the human eye several times a day will in a few hours produce an active conjunctival irritation, followed within 20 hours by severe inflammatory action, accompanied with such great swelling and oedema that the lids can not be voluntarily separated. This is accompanied with pain and rise of temperature. On about the third day suppuration ensues and continues copiously until about the eighth day, when it begins to subside. The whole period of action covers about two weeks, leaving the cornea somewhat hazy.
Abrus is a dangerous drug, and is employed only in eye disorders requiring the substitutive action of a violent drug inflammation to overcome the existing pathological inflammation. For this purpose it is employed in scrofulous pannus and granular ophthalmia or trachoma. In the latter disease it should only be used in old cases. It should, however, be very cautiously used, and only after all other means have been exhausted, for it not only provokes violent conjunctival inflammation, but is likely to destroy the corneal structures. It. has been used successfully in ulcers and corneal abscesses. Stricture of the nasal duct has been reported by Murrell from the use of this drug, It is contraindicated, according to Dr. Kent O. Foltz (Dynamical Therapeutics), in recent granular conjunctivitis exhibiting velvety surfaces or having but slight secretion, or when there is a corneal slough; also in dacro-cystitis and phlegmonous inflammations of the tear-passages.
An emulsion prepared from the red hulls of 200 decorticated jequirity beans macerated in a small quantity of water for 24 hours and then triturated to a smooth paste in a mortar, adding sufficient water to make 800 grains of the finished product, was found of service by Shoemaker in the treatment of ulcers, lupus, and epitheliomatous growths. The emulsion was applied with a brush. Several modes of preparation of the seeds for use in ocular therapeutics are given, one of which is to rub in a mortar 9 seeds in an ounce of cold water, after which an ounce of hot water is added. Allow the solution to stand 24 hours and cool, and then filter. At Will's Eye Hospital, Philadelphia, 9 grains to the ounce are employed, with the addition of 4 grains of boric acid to prevent decomposition. Some oculists prefer to use abrus seeds in an impalpable powder.
Related Drug.—Cassia Absus, Linné; furnishes flattish, shining-black, ovate-oblong seeds, which have been used in India like jequirity. A plaster prepared from them is used on wounds and sores particularly of the penis. For purulent conjunctivitis, the seeds are prepared by enveloping them in dough and placing within an onion and baking. One grain is employed. Dr. G. Smith, of We Madras Eye Infirmary, declares it a dangerous and painful application to granular lids and other ophthalmias (Dymock).