Despite the fast pace of research, there are still many diseases that defy treatment. A paper, recently published in the journal Science, asks whether venom might help design innovative treatments.
Venomous plants and animals are incredibly common — 15 percent of Earth’s biodiversity, according to the authors — occupying every ecological niche and habitat.
From worms to lizards and from arachnids to mammals, venom has proven to be a winning tool in the game of survival.
Until recently, harvesting venom and dissecting it on a molecular level was hard; many venomous animals are small, making it challenging to harvest. Also, venom is often a complicated cocktail of chemicals.
However, this is slowly changing as technology steadily improves, and its full potential is coming into focus.
Lead study author Mandë Holford, of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Hunter College — both in New York City, NY — believes that toxic animals may hold clues to the treatment of a range of conditions, including diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and chronic pain.
Certain technological breakthroughs have helped develop better insight into venom. For instance, advances in omics — the identification and quantification of biological molecules that make up an organism — are providing deeper insight.
Scientists can now peer into a species’ genome and draw a picture of the evolutionary changes that have unfolded over generations.
“Knowing more about the evolutionary history of venomous species can help us make more targeted decisions about the potential use of venom compounds in treating illnesses.”
Holford continues, “New environments, the development of venom resistance in its prey, and other factors can cause a species to evolve in order to survive. These changes can produce novel compounds — some of which may prove extremely useful in drug development.”
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved just six drugs derived from venom. This, Holford and colleagues believe, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Because of the rich diversity of natural venoms and their high specificity, they could be useful templates for drug designers.
Discussed in the new paper are a few examples of where venom might prove useful. For instance, peptides derived from a venomous sea anemone could help treat autoimmune diseases by targeting specific ion channels on T cells.
Another example is the deathstalker scorpion, which produces chlorotoxin; this bonds selectively to malignant cells, making it useful for signposting tumor cells before surgery to ensure that all cancerous tissue is removed.
Chlorotoxin has also been studied as a potential vehicle for transporting anticancer drugs to their target.
Spider toxins, according to the report, might one day yield an ecofriendly way for farmers to rid crops of pests. Rather than the traditional, broad-spectrum insecticides that can be toxic to other animals and build up in watercourses, natural, protein-based pesticides are highly specific to their target species and biodegradable.
Venom is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, but using these toxins as medicine is nothing new. The first recorded example was relayed by historian Appian of Alexander more than 2,000 years ago.
As one author points out, “The ancient Scythian healers would not be surprised to learn that crystallized venom […] is now a major export to emergency rooms around the world.”
Venom still has many secrets left to be revealed, and technological advances will help us steadily unravel them. The burgeoning field of venomics is certainly one to watch.