Snake Venom: Mother Nature’s Medicine

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By Irving Miramontes

I always associate the holidays with giving to others such as charity or loved ones. But we’re not the only ones giving as Mother Nature has been manufacturing a gift to modern medicine for hundreds of millions of years. Although this “gift” still needs to be worked on by scientists, venom has been found to be successful in treating modern health issues such as high blood pressure (hypertension) and cancer.

Toxins found in the venom of snakes and other venomous creatures are just proteins that are similar to regular proteins found in the body of organisms such as humans. When these proteins enter the body, they are distinct enough on their own to cause the human body to react dangerously, and in some cases even cause death. Luckily the genetic code of these toxins can be manipulated to make positive results. Now, for every person that dies from a snakebite each day, about 350 are being saved using snake venom.

Hypertension is caused by a high pressure of blood pushing on the arteries of the heart; over time this can have many negative effects on the body. The venomous bite of some snakes such as the southeastern pygmy rattlesnake and the saw-scaled viper can cause victims to bleed out due to toxins that stop the victim’s blood from clotting. However, the venom from these snakes can be manipulated to make drugs such as Intergrilin, derived from the venom of the southeastern pygmy rattlesnake, and Aggrastat that is made from the toxins of the saw-scaled viper. These drugs prevent platelets from clumping up and causing blood clots that would prevent blood from getting to the brain, causing strokes, or from the heart, leading to heart attacks. With about 1 in 3 adults in the United States suffering from hypertension, it is no surprise these innovative drugs are rising in popularity.

The deadly toxins from snakes have also been proved to be successful in the fight against cancer. Contortrostatin, a protein purified from the venom of a southern copperhead, has shown promising results against cancer with its anti-metastatic and anti-angiogenetic characteristics. Metastasis is the spread of cancer from one organ to another or just simply from one location of an organ to another. Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels to supply blood to growing tumors; both metastasis and angiogenesis are vital in the progression of the disease. Contortrostatin seems to attach to the integrin family that are transmembrane proteins involved in cell adhesion. By attaching to intergrins, the protein prevents cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix and disrupts signals to the cytoskeleton. Intratumor injections of contortostatin in vivo have been effective in stopping metastasis and angiogenesis.

In 2011, PBS made a documentary called Venom: Nature’s Killer which can be watched completely free. The documentary focuses on the negative effects of venom and the innovative ways snake venom and other creatures’ venom is being used in medical research. Perhaps it will inspire you to look at the new ways that nature can help us tackle modern medical problems.

A National Geographic piece on venom and its medical uses: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/125-venom/holland-text. 

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