Vintage Venoms

The usefulness of toxins as pharmaceuticals is well known. Exactly how amazingly useful has been recently demonstrated through a slew of “new” powerful drugs to hit the market. The new drugs, namely Aggrastat, Byetta, Captopril, Integrilin and Prialt come from different labs, from different companies and treat a wide range of diseases (from angina to diabetes), but their source is the same, the toxins in animal venom. Using proteomic, transcriptomic, and genomic technologies scientists are developing powerful venom derived drugs, such as Prialt, a painkiller 1,000 times stronger than a comparative opiate, without any addictive side effects. It was found in the venom of an modest cone snail (Conus magus). Byetta was discovered in a peptide from gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum), and Captopril and Integrilin are found in snake venom (Bothrops jacara and Sisrurus milarius). These venom based drugs are just the first five to be produced, five more are in the clinical trial pipeline, with six more drugs having been recently approved for use in other countries. Another dozen venom-derived drugs will be available by the end of the decade. Clearly a renaissance in animal venom research is taking place, and not a moment too soon.

The reason for the time crunch is not a new concept either, namely mass animal extinctions. The depth and diversity of potential pharmaceuticals is disappearing along with the animals within which those discoveries reside. The rates are staggering. More than 10% of all snakes are currently threatened with extinction. Tens of thousands of insect species are on the verge of extinction, and at least 50 species of ant, in just the US, haven’t been seen since the 1960’s. The worst mass extinction event in the entire 4 billion year history of Earth is underway.

Some of the animal venom information would already be lost forever if it wasn’t for the work of Brian Fry, a leading venom researcher from the University of Queensland. He decided, along with an international group of collaborators, to examine the desiccated contents of 52 different antique venom samples. These samples, some of which were 80 years old, came from a collection of historical venoms curated by the late Straun Sutherland. The majority of these samples would be impossible to obtain today. “There is a little extra stress in knowing that the samples are absolutely irreplaceable!” says Fry, “They may represent the last opportunity to discover the potential wonder-drugs hidden within the venoms of endangered species of snakes.”

The fascinating tale of animal venoms, their historical discoveries, and the race to find modern applications continues, and I urge you to follow it by going to the link below.

You may also be interested in reading some of Fry’s original research at:

Citation: Jesupret, C. … Fry, BG. (2014) Vintage Venoms: Proteomic And Pharmacological Stability Of Snake Venoms Stored For Up To Eight Decades. Journal of Proteomics, Available online 14 January 2014. DOI:10.1016/j.jprot.2014.01.004

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