Snake Venom, We Hardly Knew You

Part of my job is to read an endless stream of medical journal headlines looking for apt studies to discuss for a variety of different ailments. In general it can be a bit drab and mind-numbing.

Fortunately, every so often a study comes along that shakes the dust off and reinvigorates, if for no other reason than the study dazzles with something that seems truly innovative.

I hadn't held out much hope for this when I saw the title of a paper in the prestigious journal Nature Communications titled, "Dynamic evolution of venom proteins in squamate reptiles," but I was wrong.

Two-way Venom

By examining venom from a pair of snake species (Garter snake and Burmese python), Nicholas Casewell of the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, in Liverpool and colleagues first confirmed what they already knew: the toxins etc of reptile venom are created by the reptiles by recruiting proteins that serve other functions in the body and turning them into toxic venom.

Then they made a stunning discovery: Not only do reptiles recruit proteins for venom, but also the toxins in that venom can be reverse-recruited back into proteins with new physiological jobs to do in the body.

And...?

The toxins in snake venom have long been prized by researchers, scientists and doctors because of the way they target the same pathways that they would like to target in order to treat a host of medical conditions, including diabetes.

Unfortunately, they can't use the actual venom because of its toxic (and likely lethal) properties. In order to have made them even remotely useful over the years they have had to alter them to make them safe and relatively effective.

This latest discovery means, in simple terms, that nontoxic versions of venom likely exist inside snakes, and consequently, potentially nontoxic treatments for human diseases as well, ones that won't require alteration and can still prove highly effective.

Granted, anything potentially helpful is probably a long way off, but the discovery alone should give some hope to people with everything from diabetes to cancer that a promising therapeutic pathway may be opening thanks to the innovative thinking of a few talented researchers.

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