Venom can definitely kill. Snakes, scorpions, spiders, some lizards, bees, sea creatures, fish, snails, you name it: they’ve got it. And they are known to use it. The World Health Organization estimates that every year about five million venomous bites kill 100,000 people worldwide, with the actual number likely being much higher, as most deadly bites happen in rural areas, where victims might not be counted.
But modern science also has another use for venom: to cure. Venom has some amazing properties, and science is only just discovering them.
So far, fewer than a thousand toxins have been analyzed for medicinal value, and many more exist. Only a dozen or so major drugs have made it to market from discoveries made with venom, but the potential is far greater than this.
“We aren’t talking just a few novel drugs but entire classes of drugs,” says National Geographic Society Emerging Explorer Zoltan Takacs, a toxinologist and herpetologist in an article on Nationalgeographic.com.
“We’re mining the molecular biodiversity in nature,” Takacs says.
Venom has already offered us some great cures. Hypertension medication or ACE inhibitors come from discoveries made analyzing the Brazilian pit viper’s venom. Exenatide, which allows diabetics to produce their own insulin and lose weight, comes from a drug derived from the venom in the saliva of the Gila monster, a reptile in the U.S Southwest. Anticoagulants, medicines that stop blood from clotting, were first derived from the venom of the Malayan pit viper.
And according to Nationalgeographic.com, new treatments for autoimmune diseases, cancer, and pain could be available within a few years.
So what’s the problem? It’s like this. As we go hard on nature, and destroy some of the planet’s valuable natural environments, we decrease our chances of being able to discover all that venom has to offer. Which is a shame, as many new treatments are still hanging out in the green room, and have yet to take center stage.
What are some of the specifics?
The popular online science magazine says that wonders such as the sun anemone hold promise for treating diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and lupus. Some scorpion venom may have the potential to treat cancer, and others hold keys as cardiac medicines, painkillers, anti-seizure treatments and antimalarial drugs. And the black mamba snake seems to contain a toxin with enormous potential to be a powerful new painkiller.
Sounds like many good reasons to go easy on the planet. And for science to get up-close-and-personal with the deadly stuff.
Venom works by having different targets in the body that it attacks. The attack allows the predator to disable its victim long enough to ensure that the victim isn’t a threat, or in some cases, in order to be able to eat them. A complex recipe of toxic proteins and peptides aim for the nervous system, the muscles, or the blood in a body, and go about their work for the deadliest results.
Some venom can stop the messages from traveling between nerves and muscles, and some can eat away at tissues. Others can stop the heart or prevent clotting.
And it’s these very abilities that kill that can be identified by scientists for good.
Elements in each toxin can be isolated and modified at the molecular level in order to find new treatments.
The ability of these fatal liquids to be mined for good is the silver lining in toxins’ dark cloud.