In a new feature piece, The New York Times profiled how the field of venomics is growing. Teasing apart venom proteins has become Big Pharma's forte, resulting in the development of many new drugs. (Related: Check out this piece we recently published about the burgeoning market for venom-derived drugs.)
"A century ago, we thought venom had three or four components, and now we know just one type of venom can have thousands," says Leslie V. Boyer, a professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Arizona.
"Things are accelerating because a small number of very good laboratories have been pumping out information that everyone else can now use to make discoveries. There's a pharmacopoeia out there waiting to be explored."
The Times describes venomics as "modern-day scientific alchemy," and that is precisely what it is: The manipulation and transformation of animal defense materials into drug "medicines."
One venom-derived drug currently being worked on in Australia is based on extracts from the funnel web spider. Researchers say this creature's venom can be used to halt cell death following a heart attack.
Scientists were able to create a protein called Hi1A that they say blocks the ability of cells in beating human hearts to sense acid, "so the death message is blocked, cell death is reduced, and we see improved heart cell survival," says Nathan Palpant, one of the researchers involved with the project.
If all goes as planned, the funnel web spider-based drug could be used by emergency medical workers to potentially improve outcomes in heart transplants by protecting the donor heart for a longer period of time.
"It looks like it's going to be a heart attack wonder drug," said Bryan Fry, an associate professor of toxicology at The University of Queensland. "And it's from one of the most vilified creatures" in Australia, he added.
Venomics has been around for several decades, but only recently has the technology grown to the point that Big Pharma is able to manipulate it for wide-scale use.
"We can do assays nowadays using only a couple of micrograms of venom that 10 or 15 years ago would have required hundreds of micrograms," Fry added.
"What this has done is open up all the other venomous lineages out there that produce tiny amounts of material."
Many different animals produce venom, and each type is unique. Reptiles, insects, spiders, snails and jellyfish, among many other creatures, all make it in varying quantities, and at varying concentrations.
"We are made of protein and our protein has little complex configurations on it that make us human," says Boyer, the founder of the Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology, and Emergency Response Institute, also known as VIPER.
"And those little configurations are targets of the venom."
The first venom-derived drug to ever hit the market is called captopril. It was developed in the 1970s from the venom of a Brazilian jararaca pit viper to treat high blood pressure.
Another one called exenatide for type 2 diabetes was derived from the venom of the Gila monster, while still another, draculin, was developed from vampire bat venom as an anticoagulant to treat stroke and heart attack.
Right now, the venom of the Israeli deathstalker scorpion is undergoing clinical trials as a treatment for breast and colon tumors.
According to Boyer, Arizona is "venom central." There are more venomous creatures there than in any other state.
More related news can be found at PharmaSnakes.com.
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