Using venom to heal?
You’d hardly think of snakes, spiders and jellyfish as healers but—thanks to science—they could be.
It’s true, venom could kill you, but it could also save your life. That’s because the various chemical components in venom each have specific effects on the body, with the active components targeting particular molecules. Some, for example, cause the nervous system to shut down or go into overdrive. Others eat away at muscle tissue. Some snake venom toxins cause the blood to clot, and others prevent the blood from clotting. By isolating and slightly tweaking these components, scientists can use them as the basis for effective new medicines.
While there are countless possibilities for potential new medicines—such as new painkillers and treatments for diabetes and even cancer—we’re not just talking future science here. Medicines derived from modified toxins are already in use. If you know anyone taking blood pressure medication, chances are it’s in the class of drugs known as ACE inhibitors, which contain modified snake toxins.
Researchers in the 1970s observed that plantation workers bitten by the Brazilian pit viper collapsed with crashing blood pressure. They separated out this pressure-lowering component in the venom, modified it, and released a synthetic version in the mid-1970s. The ACE inhibitor class of drugs has gone on to become one of the top 20 bestselling drugs of all time, with multibillion dollar sales. And many lives saved.
While the individual components of venom may hold healing potential, when in their native venom state, they don’t … so if you happen to see a venomous snake this summer or a box jellyfish float past you at the beach, the best advice is to stay calm and get out of its way as quickly as possible.