The castor plant (Ricinus communis
L.) has been known since time immemorial in traditional medicine in the pharmacopeia of Mediterranean and eastern ancient cultures. Moreover, it is still used in folk medicine worldwide. Castor bean has been mainly recommended as anti-inflammatory, anthelmintic, anti-bacterial, laxative, abortifacient, for wounds, ulcers, and many other indications. Many cases of human intoxication occurred accidentally or voluntarily with the ingestion of castor seeds or derivatives. Ricinus toxicity depends on several molecules, among them the most important is ricin, a protein belonging to the family of ribosome-inactivating proteins. Ricin is the most studied of this category of proteins and it is also known to the general public, having been used for several biocrimes. This manuscript intends to give the reader an overview of ricin, focusing on the historical path to the current knowledge on this protein. The main steps of ricin research are here reported, with particular regard to its enzymatic activity, structure, and cytotoxicity. Moreover, we discuss ricin toxicity for animals and humans, as well as the relation between bioterrorism and ricin and its impact on environmental toxicity. Ricin has also been used to develop immunotoxins for the elimination of unwanted cells, mainly cancer cells; some of these immunoconjugates gave promising results in clinical trials but also showed critical limitation.
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