Venom has been continually refined over a hundred million years by evolution to be one the most efficient killing mechanisms ever devised by nature. Venom works from a palette of deadly avenues to achieve a kill, analogous to doing away with a person by poisoning, then stabbing, and finally blasting a 9mm through the brain. The World Health Organization estimates that about five-million bites kill 100,000 people each year. Most likely there are many more because many go unreported in rural developing countries treated without professional help.
WWWWThese nasty complex cocktails are comprised of toxic proteins and peptides working together for maximum impact, where some may target the nervous system to paralyze, then another would attack cells, collapsing tissue, and others may clot the blood, stopping the heart, or prevent clotting causing hemorrhage.
WWWWYet ironically, what makes it a death potion is also what makes it invaluable for medicine. The targeting ability of venom allows medical science to capitalize on them by controlling molecules in treating diseases. For instance, Arvin is a clot-dissolving drug derived from pit viper venom, and the Brazilian pit viper’s venom led to a class of drugs called ACE inhibitors used to control hypertension; that led to the synthetic version, captopril, now used by millions worldwide.
WWWWFrom the deadly Eastern green mamba comes cenderitide, which reduces the growth of excess tissue in failing hearts, and shields kidneys from being inundated with salt. Also, the black mamba has a toxin with an excellent potential for a new type of painkiller. Gila monsters sometimes eat only three large meals a year, yet their blood sugar remains stable, giving us Exenatide from their saliva, which neutralizes an overload of sugar yet is inactive when sugar levels are normal.
WWWWScorpians and venomous mammals also contribute to med-icine. An anticoagulant toxin in the saliva of vampire bats is in clinical trials that would work for stroke victims if administered within nine hours. The drug now used has to be given within three hours. And scorpion venom may have the potential to block T cells that cause autoimmune diseases.
WWThe cone snail has no jaws or claws, but their venom has fifty components that work on different levels, immediately immobilizing a fish as other toxins then destroy the muscle activity in their dinner. Baldomera Olivera, a cone snail expert at the University of Utah says, “Being stung by a cone snail is like being bitten by a cobra and eating fugu at the same time” (fugu—a thousand times deadlier than cyanide). Components of their venom are being tested with a degree of success against epileptic seizures, and may prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Another exciting possibility is the venom from the brown snake which has super clotting agents, where a spray containing it could be used to save lives at accident scenes by stopping perfuse bleeding.
Biodiversity To date, barely a thousand toxins have been researched by medical science, and only about a dozen major drugs are on the market, while there could be more tha 20 million venom toxins for science to discover and research. The medical potential of venom is huge, but we’re risking that potential because of changes in the environment—snakes are in decline along with a host of other animals. Our oceans are also suffering from changing chemistry and rising temperatures, threatening animals such as the cone snail to octopuses. It’s in our hands. Can we meet the challenge?