Animal poisons have been used in medicines since ancient Roman times but today’s biotech scientists now not only understand better which venoms can be useful in which treatments but also how to isolate particular ingredients and incorporate them into drugs. Treatments derived from venoms are showing huge promise across a wide range of diseases and conditions from cancers to autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Scorpion venom is one of the poisons with the most useful medical properties. It can help detect, prevent and cure disease. There are around 2000 species of scorpion and they each produce slightly different venoms which are a complex mix of chemicals. The Death Stalker scorpion’s venom contains chlorotoxin. Chlorotoxin is a 36-amino acid peptide which blocks small-conductance chloride channels. It attaches itself to cancer cells. Scientists are able to add a dye which means tumours, the cells of which the chlorotoxin has attached to, are lit up and can be identified, isolated and targeted with treatments. This allows even small, newly formed tumours to be detected and targeted while easier to destroy, helping to significantly reduce the risk of the cancer spreading as well as eradicate existing tumours.
Another scorpion species, the Buthus Tamulus, is believed by biotech scientists to be a potential immunosuppressant. This would mean it could be a potential treatment for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Other proteins derived from venom, this time from bee stings, are being used to help develop anti-malarial drugs.
As more venom-derived ingredients are identified and biotech learns how to incorporate them into drugs that are demonstrated to be effective, the challenge has become how to more efficiently extract that venom from the creatures that produce it. A Moroccan team has developed a ‘scorpion milking robot’.
Scorpions are knocked out by carbon dioxide, their tails clamped in a way that does not harm them and a small electrical current is then applied to the unconscious creatures. This causes the creature’s tail muscles to contract, releasing tiny drops of poision – the equivalent to 1/10,000 of a teaspoon. The technique has made milking scorpion venom safer and faster. At $8000 a gram, scorpion venom is believed to be the most expensive liquid in the world. It’s so expensive because even with an efficient automated process, scorpions can only be milked of tiny quantities of their venom once every couple of weeks.
Significant investment is currently being put into research on venoms and their use in biotech treatments. Scientists believe it is one of the most promising areas of biotech and we can expect a significant increase in venom-derived medicines in future years.