Scientists Are Making All Sorts of New Drugs From Animal Venom

Several venom-derived drugs are already approved on the market and scientists are working on what they think are many more to come

Photo: Gerald5970

We may associate a snake bite or jellyfish sting with pain or even death, but scientists are working on ways to manipulate these venoms for our benefit. As The Scientist explains, venoms are an incredibly complex assortment of proteins and peptides, developed over several millennia or so of evolution. Animal venom may prevent blood from clotting, for example, or shut down nerve cells. In the right circumstances, such functions may be highly useful for medicine.

This isn’t a new idea. Several venom-derived drugs are already approved on the market, The Scientist says, including a painkiller and medications for cardiovascular disease. One drug for hypertension was modeled after pit viper venom.

Right now, scientists are most excited about drugs derived from the sun anemone. This species lives in coral reefs in the Caribbean and stuns its shrimp prey with long, reaching tentacles. Researchers took the sun anemone’s potent toxins, which block nerve channels, and modified them into a safer version. The new, synthetic version of the venom dramatically reverses paralysis that accompanies multiple sclerosis in rodent models. Human trials, too, are currently underway, though it’s too early to tell how useful this venom derivative will be in the long run.

One of the first venom-based drug to earn approval from the Federal Drug Administration is ziconotide (sold under the name Prialt), which was  derived from a peptide from the cone snail and works on the nervous systemas as potent pain killer. Currently there are only six FDA-approved drug derived from venom, ABC News reported last month, but other venom pain killers, not approved yet for sale, come from the venom of black mambas, king cobras or other species of cone snails. The Scientist elaborates:

These promising drug candidates are likely just the tip of the iceberg, researchers agree. It is estimated that less than 0.1 percent of the venom proteome of cone snails—thought to harbor around 100,000 peptides—has so far been tapped, and fewer than 0.01 percent of roughly 10 million active molecules found in spider venoms.

Maybe soon patients will be able to pick their painkiller poisoner —spider, snail, scorpion or snake.

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