Sodium thiopental

January 05, 2016
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Sodium thiopental, trade name Sodium Pentothal (among others), is a general anesthetic that acts quickly but only for a short time. The preparation of this member of the barbiturate family of anesthetics was first described in 1939 in a US patent to Abbott Laboratories.

One advantage of sodium thiopental is that it can be used in surgery for pregnant mothers with no effect on the fetus. It has been a useful tool in psychiatry as a "truth serum", which has also given it notoriety in fiction and film.

In addition to its beneficial use in medical anesthesia, sodium thiopental was formerly used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection series. This use was discontinued de facto when Hospira, the only US manufacturer, stopped making it, and the European Union banned exporting it for death penalty purposes.

The discontinuation of sodium pentothal for lethal injections followed the same path as that of pentobarbital and midazolam, previous Molecules of the Week. All three drugs were originally developed as anesthetics; however, after they became ingredients of lethal injection "cocktails", governments and manufacturers denied their use for this purpose. In 2015, J. E. Stern wrote an excellent account in The Atlantic of how the absence of these drugs led to botched executions in the United States.

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