Toxic Medicine: How Venom Can Heal

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Picking the right lock has also become easier as researchers learn to synthesize toxins within the venom.

Scientists can use technology, including mass spectrometry and DNA analysis, to break down toxins to interpret their amino acid sequences. With this information, scientists can re-create the material and undertake in-depth research on the functions of these sequences. No longer do they need to return again and again to a death stalker scorpion for venom, they can simply synthesize toxins from the tiny killer's venom.

Takacs is working on creating a comprehensive list of toxins through his Designer Toxin technology, which he co-created while at the University of Chicago. The computational program uses toxic "libraries" that contain thousands to millions of toxins and screens their structures for specific molecular "targets" that would suggest they have therapeutic value. For example, the program can test toxins from the venom of the Eastern green mamba to see if it will effectively target the right molecules to treat congestive heart failure.

Takacs and other researchers in the pharmaceutical industry have another incentive besides finding effective cures. The venom-derived medications currently on the market have been financially successful.

In 2011, sales of Prialt, manufactured by Azur Pharma, increased 60 percent to earn more than $20 million annually, but that is just a fraction of another venom-derived drug called Byetta

Byetta, derived from gila monster venom and made by Amylin Pharmaceuticals to treat type 2 diabetes, earned more than $120 million in the first quarter of 2012.

What may be most surprising about venom-derived medications is how little is known about the specific toxins that make up the venom. Five of the six FDA-approved medications have cleared in the past 15 years. Approximately 10 different venom-derived compounds are in clinical trials, which are studying the effectiveness of venom from sea anemones in treating autoimmune disease, and the possibility of using compounds from vampire bats to help stroke victims.

Takacs said that scientists had studied only 1,000 toxins in depth. But from these specimens have come major medical breakthroughs in treating hypertension and managing pain, in addition to the creation of the best-seller Byetta.

There are an estimated 100,000 venomous animals and insects in the world, and venom from each individual species can be made of hundreds to thousands of different toxins. An undiscovered species of cone snail could provide the key to creating the next penicillin .

For Takacs, the pressing need to find and preserve these toxins has taken him out of the lab and into remote corners of the earth as he searches for some of the world's most-dangerous creatures. Takacs fears that climate change and changing ecosystems could mean the extermination of unknown species, and along with them, potentially lifesaving compounds.

"The limiting factor is less of a technological challenge but more of actually getting hold of those toxins from nature," said Takacs. "If we do not act in time, we may lose some of the smartest and most valuable molecules on planet Earth."

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