By Abigail Wu
Poison to Prescription: A Summary of a Journey to New Advances In Medicine
From jungles to deserts, poisonous animals such as spiders, snakes, and scorpions use venom to hurt and kill people . It is safe to assume that when it comes to venomous animals, most reactions of humans are not joyous smiles or immediate desires to cuddle and pet the animal. According to the World Health Organization, snakes alone cause the death of 81,000 to 138,000 people a year. Additionally, the number of amputations and permanent disabilities caused is three times higher (Snakebite envenoming).This is just snakes, not to mention the injuries and deaths other venomous animals bring about. However, is there a possibility that what is considered “deadly” may have remedial effects or inspiration?
Image: “Snake Control.” PCO. 10 Mar. 2018. www.pcodisha.com/listing/snake/. Accessed 18 Jul. 2021.
To consider the possibility of taking something damaging and transforming it into something that will be a benefit to medicine, we need to take a trip to the past. Although the scientific idea of taking venoms from animals to use as a medicine only started and gained recognition in the 17th and 18th centuries, the study of venoms has long been explored long before the era we live in today. The earliest summaries related to venoms date back to over two thousand years ago, to the famous Greek philosopher and polymath, Aristotle (Utkin, Yuri N). Findings of Italian scientists Francesco Redi and Felice Fontana in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, led to an even more detailed path of study of venoms later in the 1900s. Fontana discovered that venom, once it has entered into the body, progresses into the blood rather than the stomach as was previously assumed. (Utkin, Yuri N). Broader studies of venom started around the middle of the last century, in the 1950s (Utkin, Yuri N). Even though the study of venom is still considered a relatively new topic, researchers and scientists have been exploring this area of study and are making considerable progress.
Now, many may ask, how can something toxic and perhaps lethal be used for treatment purposes? Moreover, what is in animal venom that makes it therapeutic? Venoms are made of a variety of active molecules, toxins, enzymes, proteins, and peptides. It is the mixture of all these substances that create such venoms in animals (Utkin, Yuri, N). At the same time, however, it is the same threatening substances that make them useful in medicine (Nightingale, Kath). What this shows is that there are two sides to this certain situation, and what may seem dangerous could be somewhat the opposite.
Different animals and their venoms can contribute to a different disease or medical problem. Massive bleeding happens when blood clotting is prevented. Snake venom is a source of treatment for patients with some heart diseases because an essential part of treating heart disease is blood thinning. When the venom enters a body, molecules that usually control the dilation of blood vessels are stopped, which leads to blood pressure being significantly lowered. As such, most medicine developed from snake venom is focused on treating cardiovascular diseases (Nightingale, Kath). The venom for bees is in their sting, which can help treat diseases ranging from HIV to rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. The main problem researchers are trying to overcome is allowing the medicine to only attack the cancerous cells and not the healthy cells. The reason that bee stings would be beneficial in medicine is due to a specific substance- melittin, a sort of peptide. This could one day lead to the discovery of preventing HIV transmission (Nightingale, Kath). On the topic of spiders and scorpions, they are helpful towards chronic pain, erectile dysfunction, muscular dystrophy, and cancer. It has been found that specific toxins in spiders will likely be able to treat chronic pain, erectile dysfunction, and muscular dystrophy, while in-depth research is still being carried out on the specific substances (Nightingale, Kath). Venoms in scorpions might be beneficial for neurosurgeons dealing with tumors. By mixing a fluorescent marker with scorpion venom, surgeons would be able to differentiate the brain and a tumor more clearly and effectively (Nightingale, Kath). Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have tested this “tumor paint” on animals and is now being trialed in humans (Nightingale, Kath). What these examples show is that although on one hand most people see these animals as harmful, on the other hand they have beneficial properties that are leading or will lead to amazing medical advancements. Each animal has something unique in its venom that may be able to help humans in treating diseases.
As much as animal venom can become a major step in the advancement of medicine, protecting wildlife is just as important. In addition, excessive exploitation of wildlife may lead to more epidemics such as the COVID-19 we are facing now (Zoe, Cormier). However, with the cutting-edge technology we have today, we do not need to harm animals in the process of finding out the assets of venoms. According to Zoe Cormier, a professional journalist, and writer for BBC Future, all we have to do now is to find the specific DNA sequences of animals to study, rather than harming animals in the process.
From thousands of years ago to today, animal venom has always been a fascinating topic. Specific substances in certain animals are leading researchers and scientists to discoveries and advancements in medicine. However, scientists are also being cautious with animals too, as scientific advancement and improvement should not be done at the cost of harming animals. Using animal venom as medicine is still considered a new field of study, and doctors are still being cautious with it. As Dr. Zoltan Takacs, a Hungarian toxicologist, said, “venom is a complex mixture of toxins, you need to isolate a single particular toxin to have a safe therapeutic agent.” Nonetheless, technology in all aspects of Science is continuing to expand and advance. As far as our knowledge goes, successfully and safely using animal venom as medicine may just be around the corner.
Cormier, Zoe. “The life-saving medicines inspired by animals.” BBC Future, British Broadcasting Corporation. 8 May. 2020. www.bbc.com/future/article/20200507-medicines-and-drugs-from-animals-venom. Accessed 7 Jul. 2021.
“Epilepsy.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 31 Mar. 2020. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20350093#:~:text=Epilepsy%20is%20a%20central%20nervous,races%2C%20ethnic%20backgrounds%20and%20ages Accessed 10 Jul. 2021.
Nightingale, Kath. “The Bite that Cures: How We’re Turning Venom into Medicine.” Science Focus, Immediate Media Company. 5 Jul. 2019. www.sciencefocus.com/nature/the-bite-that-cures-how-were-turning-venom-into-medicine/. Accessed 7 Jul. 2021.
“Snakebite Envenoming.” World Health Organization. May 17. 2021. www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/snakebite-envenoming. Accessed 7 Jul. 2021.
Utkin, Yuri N. “Animal venom studies: Current benefits and future developments.” World Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 6, no. 2, 26 May. 2015, pp 29-33. PubMed Central, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4436903/. Accessed 7 Jul. 2021.