The words "drug development" may conjure images of white-coated scientists, working at benches with pipettes and petri dishes.
But the real experiments have been occurring in nature for millennia, where life on land and sea has developed distinct chemical methods of survival -- from capturing their prey to identifying disease-causing microbes.
Thus far, humans have tapped a small but successful portion of the resulting cornucopia of compounds with the potential to cure disease.
Dr. Leslie Boyer, director of the Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response Institute at The University of Arizona College of Medicine, points out that venomous creatures, who tend to be slow moving or rare and are generally outpaced by their prey, need a way to make their lunch hold still.
"They need to do something to the nerves, to the heart, to make the blood vessels leak," Boyer said. "Predators with no chewing teeth might need meat tenderizers, something to cause the tissue to dissolve, like digestive chemicals... There are examples in nature of chemicals that do all of those things."
And a chemical that performs a certain function in one animal could perform similar functions in another animal. Compounds that affect nerve cells could be effective for pain, muscle relaxants or other neurological indications. Venom that causes bleeding may contain anti-clotting factors useful for heart disease. Proteins that dissolve or loosen tissue have a multitude of uses.
Baldomero Olivera, a professor of biology at the University of Utah and the pioneer of drug research based on cone snail venom, continues to work on these creatures and points out that there is an enormous amount of basic science to do in this field.
"People are beginning to realize that almost all venoms have a complex pharmacological profile," Olivera said. "This is really a field in its infancy ... we know very little about the role of natural products in biological interactions."
But advancements in parallel fields, such as taxonomy, biochemical engineering, molecular imaging and technology have sped up the process of choosing and studying animals that may yield drug research benefits.
"We are becoming much more efficient," Boyer said. "[Different] scientific work is enabling scientists and physicians to learn faster where the good stuff is ... We are finding drugs hand over fist in these animals and we humans are going to benefit the most when we understand this tree."
The following is a list of animals that have contributed to medicine.
Sir Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1929, a happy accident, marked a new era of medicine in which antibacterial drugs offered new protection against many formerly fatal infections, including pneumonia, scarlet fever and venereal disease. But for the rest of the animal kingdom, this was nothing new.
"Every animal, from the simplest hydra to man, makes antimicrobial peptides," said Dr. Michael Zasloff, a professor of surgery at the Transplant Institute at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. "They serve to protect us and to live in harmony with bacteria."