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Using venom to save lives

Published: 
Monday, September 7, 2015
Science and Society

It is estimated that, every year worldwide, over 100,000 people die from snake bites. This does not include the painful and sometimes fatal effects of the bites/stings of insects, arachnids and other reptiles. Poisonous snakes inject venom into their prey and the effects are immediate and deadly, allowing them to dispose of the unfortunate creature captured with a minimum of struggle. 

Scientists have been examining both the effects of the toxins and the efficacy of the targeted delivery with a view to creating new drugs to save lives. Many creatures create venom as part of their defence and or feeding strategy. Venom comprises a cocktail of toxins which may vary in number from 20 to 100. 

Toxins are very small and thus it is hard for the body’s immune system to detect and neutralise them. They have evolved over millions of years to be very selective in attaching themselves to specific targets within the body. In other words they are exceedingly efficient target-specific delivery mechanisms. This property has long been a goal of medicine; one that can significantly reduce the negative side effects associated with pharmaceuticals. 

Further, the analgesic or pain-killing and anti-clotting properties of toxins are significant and desirable characteristics of drugs which are used to treat a variety of diseases. It is not surprising then, that venom research is a flourishing enterprise and more and more rare creatures are being sought to investigate the potential value of their venom.

Venom-based research has already yielded important and highly-used drugs and several promising ones are in the horizon. The venom of the Brazilian pit viper is the source of one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for hypertension; captopril. It is also used as a treatment for heart failure and to improve survival rates after a heart attack.       

Prof Manjunatha of the National University of Singapore is leading a research team that is investigating the toxins found in the venom of the King Cobra for the treatment of chronic pain, as the toxins do cause numbing of the nerves. The Food and Drug Administration of the USA has approved venom-based drugs for the treatment of hypertension, heart conditions, chronic pain and diabetes. 

Research is also being actively pursued to develop other venom-based drugs to treat stroke, prostate cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis. Absolutely necessary for this line of research is a sustained supply of venom. There are thus specialised facilities or serpentariums where snakes are kept for the purpose of venom-collection or milking. 

This very dangerous task of milking snakes is routinely done to provide research labs with an adequate supply of venom. This process involves the holding of the snake head and allowing it to sink its fangs into a container with specially designed latex cover. 

The fangs pierce the cover and the injected venom falls into the container. Snake milkers are a highly-specialised group, earning on the average, about US$2,500 per month. A degree in biochemistry or herpetology is the academic requirement for the job of snake milker. The extraction of poison from spiders is different, but no less dangerous and involves the dissection of the glands that contain the toxins. 

It is an instructive lesson for non-scientists. By observing how venom kills, lessons are learnt on how to save lives. Even more ironic is the fact that these deadly poisons can be used to develop drugs that are being used to save and to improve the quality of lives. Indeed, this learning could and should be carried over to all aspects of our lives. 

We can and must utilise social venom, aimed at creating pain, distress and decay, as a healing salve for social cohesion and progress.

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