Cancer Cures and Other Ways Poisonous Animals Have Changed Medicine

Oren Aks/Thrillist
Oren Aks/Thrillist

It takes a creative (and brave) person to look at a poisonous snake or spider and think, "Hey, maybe I can extract that venom and turn it into medicine!" Fortunately for many seriously ill patients, though, many people have the temerity to do just that -- the poisonous stuff that trickles from fangs is being developed as treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, and even cancer.

What exactly is venom?

In most cases, venom is an offensive tool meant to kill or immobilize prey, and toxins in venom can attack tissue (which can literally rot your flesh), the nervous system (which can lead to paralysis), and sometimes both. Encounters with venomous animals kill 57,000 people per year, though some experts think the numbers could be closer to 94,000.

Basically, those venomous murderers owe a huge debt to society! How to exact human revenge on animal crimes? By using their powers for good: Scientists have already derived from venom some of the best medicine available for things like heart disease and diabetes. Moreover, in 2014, the American Chemical Society (ACS) announced that it successfully used a component of venom from bees to halt the growth of cancer cells.

But bees aren't the only animals with the power to heal.

Cobra venom may treat arthritis

In an interview with The Guardian, David Warrell, a tropical medicine specialist at Oxford University, said that as many as 50,000 people die from snakebites in India and Bangladesh annually.

But the deadly Indian cobra may also hold a cure for arthritis, with measured doses of its venom relieving rats of their arthritic symptoms. Perhaps most interestingly, the idea that cobra venom may be useful in treating arthritis isn't new -- this idea has been passed down as part of Ayurveda, a traditional medicine from India, for thousands of years.

And the potential for serpent-derived medicine is bigger still.

Vipers helped scientists develop heart and kidney drugs

In the late 1960s, scientists derived angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors from the venom of Brazilian pit vipers. Today, ACE inhibitors are still an essential treatment for hypertension, congestive heart failure, and chronic kidney disease.

Rattlesnake venom led to the development of a tumor-fighter

In 2002, researchers looked to rattlesnake venom, which contains something called crotoxin, a chemical compound that uniquely aims its toxicity at specific cells -- those found in the blood and muscles. Building on this mechanism of action, scientists created a treatment called CB24, which works similarly, but instead seeks and destroys tumor cells.

The black mamba could help cure Alzheimer's and Parkinson's

No, not Kobe Bryant, who gave himself that nickname. Scientists in Puerto Rico are exploring how the venom of one of the world’s most infamous and lethal snakes, the black mamba, may hold the cure for nervous system disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Mamba venom attaches to very specific receptors in the brain, and researchers hope that by discovering exactly how this happens, they can develop targeted therapies for brain diseases.

Tarantula venom may treat muscular dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is a genetically inherited condition characterized by gradual weakening of the muscles and skeleton. Most of those affected by MD will, over time, lose the ability to walk, talk, or even swallow food. There's no known cure.

However, researchers are developing a drug from a chemical called AT-300, which they discovered in the venom of the Chilean rose tarantula in the 1990s. Of the nine forms of MD, one, called Duchenne muscular dystrophy, is the result of an inability to properly absorb calcium; the cells of those diagnosed take in too much of it. Because AT-300 ceases the cellular intake of calcium, a drug derived from it may transform this crippling disorder into a manageable illness.

Spiders might one day offer an alternative to opioids

It’s estimated that 1.9 million Americans suffer from an addiction to opioids -- the potent class of drugs that runs the gamut from morphine to heroin. Fortunately, a new kind of painkiller is now being developed from the spiders.

Researchers at the University of Queensland identified properties of venom from the Australian Eastern mouse spider that block sodium channels, which are the molecular pathways that communicate pain signals from the body to the brain. While blocking too many of these pathways would lead to paralysis, blocking the right ones would relieve the body of pain and allow it to continue normal functioning.

Scorpion venom illuminates brain tumors

The (amazingly named) Deathstalker scorpion, native to the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, has an element in its venom called chlorotoxin. This component is useful in the treatment of brain cancer when modified into a kind of dye called “Tumor Paint.” This fluid causes cancerous brain cells in the brain to be illuminated when scanned, so doctors can target malignant growths and spare healthy tissue.

This isn't a complete list, and there are likely many more similar discoveries yet to be made. It's a reminder that biodiversity isn't just good for the planet, it's good for science and our continued understanding of medicine... no matter how creepy you think spiders are.

Also, did you know the duck-billed platypus is venomous? Maybe there's a cancer cure hiding out somewhere in there.

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John Marshall is a writer based in New York. He's not venomous. Follow him to the docks, or @brunodionmarsh.