Authorities say UPMC doctor had toxic levels of cyanide
May 2, 2013 2:45 AM
Autumn M. Klein
By Lexi Belculfine Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh homicide detectives are trying to determine how a top neurologist at UPMC had toxic levels of cyanide in her system when she died.
Autumn M. Klein, 41, who was chief of the division of women's neurology, died April 20. Dr. Klein was taken to the hospital after collapsing in her Oakland home.
"Our homicide unit is investigating the death of a female UPMC employee, where she was found at the time of her death with toxic levels of cyanide in her system," Pittsburgh police major crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus said.
He would not comment further on the investigation.
The Allegheny County medical examiner's office said it is waiting on results of toxicology and neuropathology tests -- which could take 12 to 16 weeks -- and the police investigation before releasing a cause and manner of death.
Lois Klein said she was shocked to learn her daughter died from cyanide poisoning.
"She was an absolutely wonderful individual," Mrs. Klein said of her daughter. "She was a fantastic mother."
Reached Wednesday night, former county coroner Cyril Wecht said, "I have had a private inquiry on this matter, and therefore, regrettably, am not able to talk about it." He would not say who contacted him or provide further details.
How much cyanide kills a person?
As little as 70 to 200 milligrams, says Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York," which includes a chapter on cyanide.
"It's a really reliable, fast-acting, dangerous poison," she said.
A lethal dose of cyanide interferes with the ability to breathe and can render a person unconscious in a minute, killing him or her in five to 15 minutes, Ms. Blum said.
But cyanide is hard to come by, Ms. Blum said. It's used in industrial processes and pesticides, but mostly is found in university or pharmaceutical labs.
"You have to have a special kind of access" to cyanide, Ms. Blum said.
Cyanide gas was used by the Nazis in concentration camps, but people who die from cyanide poisoning today typically ingest it, she said.
Cyanide poisoning causes coughing and convulsions. People have also been known to emit an uncontrolled "cyanide scream" as the poison contracts their muscles, she said.
People who die from cyanide poisoning may emit a bloody froth from the mouth or exhibit signs such as lesions through the digestive tract, red and purple blotches on the skin, or symptoms characteristic of asphyxiation, such as blue lips, Ms. Blum said.
"It's not a nice death," she said.
To die from a reaction to naturally occurring cyanide -- such as that in peach pits and bitter almonds -- is rare, she said.
Dr. Klein had moved to Pittsburgh in 2011 from Boston, where she worked at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
She worked intensely on treating pregnant women with neurological diseases, and her colleagues described her as a leader in a field with few experts.
She also was an assistant professor of neurology and obstetrics and gynecology at UPMC.
Dr. Klein was highly educated, receiving a B.A. from Amherst College in 1993, followed by an M.D. and Ph.D. from Boston University School of Medicine in 2001.
She did an internship in internal medicine at Brown University, was chief resident in neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and had a faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School.
She came to Pittsburgh with her husband, Robert J. Ferrante, a leading researcher in ALS and Huntington's disease from Harvard Medical School. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Dr. Ferrante and Dr. Klein married during the same excitement-filled weekend she graduated from medical school, Mrs. Klein said.
She last saw her daughter a couple of months ago, and "she was the way she always was."
"We know nothing about what's going on," said Mrs. Klein, of Towson, Md., who had not been contacted by authorities Wednesday night.
She described her daughter as an intellectually curious person who fell in love with biology in middle school.
"Her biology teacher must have said something that interested her, and from that point on, she knew what she wanted to do in life," Mrs. Klein said.