Venom As Medication – Tis Just a Hint of Venom, My Sweet

2009-09-22 | |
Last updated: 2009-09-22

Crawling, creeping, and slithering into many of our nightmares, spiders, insects, lizards and snakes have caused instinctual fear and loathing in humans since the dawn of our existence. With our ancient ancestors attempting to survive in a world shared with these often dangerous and sometimes poisonous creatures, the brains of ancient humans evolved with this fear wired in.

Even though most of us will rarely face any of these creatures and so many people are glad not to, these life forms still have an effect on our lives and not simply from the multitude of B-rated horror movies in which they star. Fortunately, in the current era, their benefit far outweighs the risk they pose to us. If only the reverse were also true.

Though much maligned through our long-standing evolutionary and cultural bias against them, many poisonous creatures offer, with their venom, a host of opportunities for improving human health. Since the times of witch doctors, the scorpion’s stinger and the tarantula’s fangs have been treated with reverence and awe so it is no wonder that modern researchers were interested in the properties of the venom from these and many other venomous creatures.

To our collective benefit, the many research activities involving various venoms have proven worthy of the effort. The venom of spiders, snakes, scorpions, lizards and snails, to name just a few creatures, are providing important ingredients and knowledge for the development of many medicines.

In ongoing at the University of Buffalo that started in the 1980s, scientists discovered that the venom of a Chilean Rose Tarantula had the potential to regulate the electrical signaling of the heart and prevent atrial fibrillation or erratic heartbeats. Since atrial fibrillation affects some 2.2 million Americans and can lead to heart attack and stroke, such medicine would be of considerable benefit to many people. Time will tell if this ongoing research will eventually result in a new medicine.

Other research also using tarantula venom, this time from a West Indies variety, is also proving invaluable in teaching researchers about how pain is transmitted through the nervous system. The research performed at the University of California and published this year, has found that hot peppers and tarantula venom trigger fiery pain in the same manner. Although, in this research, the venom is not directly used in a medicine, the studies are revealing knowledge that is crucial for understanding how pain is activated and can be blocked in many diseases and infections.

Moving from the many legged to the legless creatures, venomous snakes have also provided medical researchers with some very important toxic proteins for use in creating medicines. Research conducted at the National University of Singapore has found various components from snake venoms with a number of different medical properties. Some properties include the ability to prevent blood from coagulating, the ability to prevent pain, as well as the ability to fight cancerous tumors.

In Australia, a country with a multitude of poisonous creatures, research at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research has found that a number of snakes generate a highly effective blood-clotting chemical. In nature the venom produced by these snakes clots the blood of their prey within only a few seconds. The potential of these chemicals in stopping blood flow in the wounds of trauma patients or those in surgery is substantial and clinical trials of drugs made with these chemicals have taken place. Though some setbacks have been encountered regarding liver toxicity, effort is still under way to allow use of these chemicals for enhancing blood-clotting ability.

A final promising area of research into snake venom is in the treatment of cancer. Efforts at the Chungbuk National University in Korea have found that some components of snake venom have the ability to cause cell death in prostate and breast cancer cells without significant effects on other healthy cells. Other investigation of snake venom at National Taiwan University has found that some components of venom can prevent spreading cancer cells from adhering to bone and can thus act to limit the ability of these cancers to spread.

The availability of so many medically interesting chemical compounds within venom offers medical researchers many opportunities to find a chemical that just might prove to be a highly useful medicine. Rather than having to conceive these complex chemicals directly, researchers are taking advantage of the products of evolution. If we only respect our fellow earthly denizens and ensure they have a place to thrive, we may find that their most offensive weaponry can supply us with strong defenses against a number of diseases.

This blog entry only touched a few of the areas in which venom is being researched for medical uses and turned into medicines. A future article will cover some more of the venoms from other creatures that are being harnessed to serve humanity.

Do you know of other areas in which spider or snake venom has been researched for medical use? Would you be concerned about these toxic chemicals in use as medicines?

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