Venoms are chemicals which are feared throughout the animal kingdom and for good reason. Some of the most toxic venoms result in deaths and/or other debilitating consequences like paralysis. However, what if some good can be found in these largely dangerous toxins? In this article, I will be going through the main well-known venomous organisms and how their venom is being to used to advance medical research and medicine overall.
Firstly, let’s start with one of the least venomous organisms, bees. Although the pain from their stings is a rememberable one for most, the compounds within bee venom are incredibly useful for modern medicine. For example, the majority of honeybees’ venom contains melittin, a peptide. This particular peptide causes the burning sensation associated with a bee sting. On the plus side, this compound is being researched to find cures for HIV, especially at Washington University. Here, gold particles are being made so that they contain melittin, which means that HIV can be attacked without attacking healthy human cells.
Moving on, lizards are already being used for diabetes treatment. Specifically, the American Gila monster is the focus of the production of this treatment. Until 1990, scientists were confused at the way the Gila monster can only eat three large meal a year, while still keeping its blood sugar level. After 1990, scientists discovered that the Gila monster’s venom contains a compound which stimulates insulin release. This compound has been used in the drug, Exenatide, an injectable solution to help people with diabetes lose weight as well as keeping their blood glucose levels stable.
Snakes are probably the first organism people think of when it comes to venom, and in the same way, researchers who study venom, usually look at snakes the most. With snakes, anti-venom is one of the most common medicines derived from them. For example, for banana plantation workers in tropical countries, snake bites are not commonplace but do happen. The workers who are unfortunately bitten usually fall unconscious because of huge falls in blood pressure.
Scorpions are found in the deserts and areas of high temperature, and in recent times have had uses against cancer. Chlorotoxin forms part of scorpions’ venom, specifically the eerily named death-stalker scorpion. This toxin has the unique ability to be able to bind to tumour cells, which gives it potential for combating cancer in patients. Furthermore, if a fluorescent material is attached to the toxin, means that tumours become more visible to a surgeon thinking of or carrying out an operation to remove the physical tumour. As a piece of side information, the fluorescent material, or “tumour paint”, as it is better known, was produced by leading researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in the USA. These researchers have successfully tested the fluorescent material in animals, and are now conducting tests in humans. Because of this fluorescent “tag”, chlorotoxin has a promising future in fighting cancer.
The next venomous organisms on this list are sea anemones. Sea anemones live, as you would guess, in the sea, but in particular the Caribbean sea. The sea anemone has stinging cells within its tentacles, meaning that it is quite special in terms of how it delivers the venom. This is further shown by the fact that it stuns sea creatures, like fish, with the tentacles it has and then forcing the venom into their mouths. Although this is very gruesome, the venom they produce is of great importance for medicine, given its variety of viable uses. The peptides within anemone venom are the key component of the venom, which scientists are focusing on the most, to see its possible uses in medicine. Some of the peptides in anemone venom have been used to produce the experimental drug, dalazatide, which is going through phase II clinical trials as we speak. The main use of dalazatide is in treating and coping with certain autoimmune diseases. The way it does this is by blocking ion channels in some variants of immune cells, which cope badly with autoimmune diseases. The important part of this is that it does so, not by suppressing the entire immune system, which is very dangerous for patients already ill with autoimmune disease. Because of this breakthrough, the venom from sea anemones, although originally very dangerous, has been modified to be able to treat many autoimmune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis as well as a host of others.
To conclude, venom is often seen as dangerous and foreign, for good reason, but with new scientific advances, these lethal chemicals can now be used to cure and treat so many diseases, like the ones mentioned in this article, better furthering the knowledge and capability of modern medicine.
- Nightingale, K., 2019. The Bite That Cures: How We’Re Turning Venom Into Medicine. [online] BBC Science Focus Magazine. Available at: <https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/the-bite-that-cures-how-were-turning-venom-into-medicine/> [Accessed 13 September 2020].
- Sargent, E., 2017. From Venoms To Medicine. [online] Chemistry World. Available at: <https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/from-venoms-to-medicine/3008360.article> [Accessed 13 September 2020].