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Using snake venom for medicine


Paulina Keber
Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 4:27 -

Bill Haast lived to be 101 years old. His secret, you ask? Could it be the daily injections of snake venom he subjected himself to as a laboratory director at a Miami Serpentarium?

Another man, who goes by Michael, suffered from a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic autoimmune disease of the skeleton, a sort of spinal arthritis. While vacationing he was bit by a snake and the symptoms of his disease went away. After two years, he is still off of most of his medication. 

Of course it is purely speculation that Haast’s longevity or Michael’s miracle cure can be tied to the slithering science, but researchers are now taking a look at various venoms as ways to produce drugs using proteins found in the venom. One principle of toxicology backs this up by suggesting that it is the dose that makes the poison. In other words, there are no poisons, just poisonous doses. 

Michael’s case may have been pure chance, but what Haast practiced is one of the oldest forms of vaccinology. And while some may think this sounds crazy, he may have stumbled onto something. Scientists have even begun looking at people who take part in this practice by sampling their blood. They are looking to see if the venom not only boosts immunity but caused other chemical changes in the body.

The key is in the proteins found in the snake venom. It just so happens that the very proteins that make snake venom so deadly, may also have beneficial properties when used in the right amount. These poisons also flow along the same physiological pathway that many diseases do. By using proteins that follow the same path as diseases, it could help to pinpoint the best way to tackle them. 

It has also been found that different venomous snakes carry different types of proteins that have been found to work differently in the body. As such, different snakes have been used to develop different drugs. These proteins can be placed in two different categories: hemotoxins and neurotoxins. Hemotoxins are proteins that target the circulatory system. This compound in venom prevents clotting but is also responsible for uncontrollable bleeding. This protein has been found useful for treating heart attacks and blood disorders. The other types of proteins fall into the category of neurotoxins. These types target the central nervous system and the venom works by stopping muscles from working. The proteins from these venoms are used to treat brain injuries, strokes, various pain disorders, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

Below are a few uses that different snake proteins have been found to have: 

Heart attacks/ strokes 

  • These drugs use proteins that dissolve blood clots and thin the blood. 
  • Two drugs have been developed and used since 1998 to prevent theses illnesses. 
  • The proteins have also been used for those with coronary heart disease to breakdown plaque buildup in the arteries. 

Cancer 

  • Different snakes have been found to hold proteins that target different types of cancers. One protein, called Crotoxin has been found in the South American Rattlesnake. The protein seems particularly attracted to cancer cells and has the ability to kill itself. Scientists are interested in understanding more about this protein and how it is able to latch on so tightly to nerve cell receptors and those found on the surface of the brain. 
  • The Copperhead snake is another snake that has cancer-fighting proteins. The protein found in this type of snake prevents blood disks from latching onto one another. As such, cells are not able to attach to one another. This could be helpful for scientists in using the properties of the protein to prevent the spread of cancer. 
  • Contortrostatin is another type of protein found. It does the job of not attaching and prevent those cancer cells from producing signals that prompt new blood vessels to sprout and support the spread of cancer. With the National Cancer Institute, this protein has been used and developed into a drug which is currently being tested on animals. If successful, the compound will be used on women with breast cancer in the next step.

Melanoma 

  • A protein called Eristostatin has been found in the Asian Sand Viper which has been found to help people’s immune systems fend off malignant melanoma by stopping effected cells from colonizing the liver and lungs. 

Scaling Brain Disorders 

  • All brain cells have receptors that pass signals to the body to perform certain functions. Different diseases cause these receptors to function in an abnormal way. 
  • Proteins in snake venom can be used in fighting diseases such as asthma, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain pain disorders. 
  • These drugs would work by altering the actions of these receptors so that they go back to functioning normally. 

Pain Relief 

  • Hannalgesin is a drug derived using the venom found in the King Cobra. This drug is apparently 20-200 times more effective than morphine and can also be taken orally, as opposed to morphine which must be injected. Clinical trials are set for later this year or early 2014. 

These are only a few of the protein-based drugs that have been developed from snake venom. With over 600 types of venomous snakes, scientists are sure to find more uses for the different snakes and toxins. And with drug companies finding it harder to develop new drugs, this is definitely headway into finding new medicines to combat different diseases. Snake venom is also proving to be very promising because nontoxic versions of toxins have been found to exist in venom. Could snake venom proteins help find the cure to cancer and other deadly diseases? While scientists are still looking into the different types of proteins and their uses, it seems quite possible that new drugs of this sort will be used in the near future.

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