Medical Uses of Venom

Though the bites and stings of snakes and other creatures can be deadly, researchers have identified compounds and proteins in the venom of some species with potential medical applications. Treatments to slow the growth of some forms of cancer, alleviate chronic pain, and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease are in development, and experts are working to identify other possible applications for venoms and animal-derived toxins.

According to John Perez, director of the National Toxins Research Center at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, “Snakes use venom to alter biological functions, and that’s what medicine does too.” The venom of some snakes has been found to have antibacterial applications, as well as slowing cell growth, increasing nerve stimulation, and affecting blood thinning and clotting. Preliminary research has shown that a compound found in the venom of some snakes may be able to inhibit cancer cell migration and slow the growth of tumor cells. Moreover, the anti-clotting proteins that contribute to the lethalness of a snake’s bite have been studied for their possible application as medications for high blood pressure and anti-clotting drugs.

In addition to snake venoms, toxins from a number of other animals have also been found to have medical applications. The saliva of the Gila monster is being studied as a possible drug for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and proteins which can inhibit or stimulate the growth of blood vessels have been identified within the venom of several amphibians. Naturally occurring and synthesized venom from cone snails are being examined as new treatments for pain, epilepsy, and incontinence. As is the case also in snakes, experts note that there are more than 500 species of cone snail, and that each is able to produce more than 100 unique toxins, all of which could have beneficial medical applications.

Toxins from a number of arachnids and insects have also been examined. Historically bee venom has been used to treat a number of ailments, and in recent years bee venom therapy (BVT) or apitherapy has been touted as a treatment for arthritis, chronic pain, migraines, and multiple sclerosis. Compounds found in scorpion venom which disrupt the growth and spread of invasive tumors have been investigated for possible applications in treating brain cancer. Venoms from spiders have also been studied and research is ongoing to determine if they could be utilized to prevent arterial fibrillation after a heart attack, to regulate and control blood pressure, or to treat erectile dysfunction.

With additional research, it may be possible to identify new treatments for cancer or even HIV/AIDS among the compounds in venoms and toxins. By working to better understand the wealth of resources of the world’s biodiversity, it may be possible to improve global health.

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