Life-Ending Venoms Are Becoming Drugs For Everything From Cancer To Bugs

Encounters with these venomous critters can be lethal but their venom is a gold mine of potential drug cures

RISING’s intrepid critter capturer risked encounters with deadly vipers in the Surinamese rainforests, and visited labs around the world to find out how toxins from creatures as diverse as frogs and scorpions, snakes and spiders, are being harvested as rich sources of potential new drugs. Researchers are discovering that poisonous animals are a gold mine of complex molecules, each of which are highly targeted in the body of the victim. For this reason they can be isolated and used in medicine with far fewer side effects than other drugs…



1. Funnel Web Spider: Fights Cancer

RISING visited Dr David Wilson’s lab at James Cook University, where he milks the venom from deadly funnel web spiders. ‘Some compounds in the venom are killing breast cancer cells in the lab, and we are trying to find out just how they are doing this,’ he said. Another molecule from the spider venom could even slow down the death of nerve cells in the brain following a stroke or oxygen deprivation. ‘We believe that we have, for the first time, found a way to minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke,’ said Prof. Glenn King from the University of Queensland Institute for Molecular Bioscience.


2. Giant Monkey Frog: Antibiotics & Painkillers

RISING first encountered this Amazonian tree frog at night in the rainforests of Suriname when looking for poison dart frogs. It’s the size of your fist and excretes a poison through its skin, inducing a molecular shock treatment in the mouth of anything foolish enough to try eating it. Any would-be predator will rapidly vomit the frog back up to safety. The skin secretions of this frog family also contain potent antimicrobial compounds – phyllo septins, which act by bursting bacterial cells – and are being researched at Queen’s University Belfast as possible next-gen antibiotics. The giant green amphibian also produces a painkiller 30-40 times more powerful than morphine through its skin; dermorphin has been illegally used as a performance-enhancing drug in racehorses.


‘After spotting our sixth highly camouflaged, deadly snake in 100m, RISING decided to beat a retreat’


3. Cone shells: Painkillers & Insomnia Cures

We keep a respectful distance from these harmless-looking beasts when photographing them underwater, because marine cone shell venom has a 90% mortality rate in humans. The venom from one shell species has already produced a strong painkiller that doesn’t have the addictive side effects of opiates like morphine. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore have tested components of the venom, of an Indian cone shell, and found powerful sleep-inducing agents. These are being tested in mice to develop new drugs to combat insomnia. In the wild, these compounds help the snails snare a fast-moving fish supper by quickly paralysing it, after the snail spears its prey and injects its venom.


4. Fer de Lance Snake: Stops Bleeding In 6 Seconds

After spotting our sixth highly camouflaged, deadly snake in a 100-metre stretch of Surinamese rainforest trail in March, RISING decided to beat a retreat. The deadly South American pit viper is responsible for 50% of all lethal snake bites in the region and an antidote was many hours away. In the snake’s venom is batroxobin, which will clot blood in six seconds. In nature, this stops the snake’s venom from leaving a wound. Synthetic batroxobin is being made in bacteria, because collecting venom from this aggressive snake is dangerous. This is being tested in gel form and works even in patients who have to take blood thinning drugs. It may become an important tool in the operating theatres of the future.


‘Tagged by a deadly Brazilian wandering spider, you’d quickly get the sense that something was ‘up’’


5. Brazilian Wandering Spider: Keeps Your Pecker Up

If you were tagged by a deadly Brazilian wandering spider you’d quickly get the sense that something was ‘up’, before expiring of paralysis, asphyxiation and death. The bite induces an uncontrollable erection and has lead researchers to search for the compound in the venom responsible for this Viagra-like effect. Tested on mice with erectile dysfunction, (yup mice bros can suffer from that too) the compound enabled them to generate a healthy erection with no side effects.


6. Stonefish: Battles Transplant Rejection

Stand on this spiny camouflaged ambush predator by accident and it will put a major crimp on your day. The stonefish injects toxins from its spines as a defence mechanism and exposure to stonustoxin in the venom can lead to a fatal heart attack. The toxin is a distant relative of an human immune protein, perforin, important to the body’s defences against infection. By studying how stonotoxins work, scientists at Monash University in Australia have been able to design new immunosuppressant drugs for transplant patients.


7. Deathstalker Scorpion: Anti-cancer Chemotherapy

Current chemotherapy treatments have a host of horrible side effects including vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and loss of fertility. The side effects are caused by current drugs not distinguishing between cancerous and healthy cells, and killing both. A compound from the Deathstalker scorpion’s venom called chlorotoxin specifically seeks out cancerous cells and binds to them. By attaching this to the conventional chemo drug, Cisplatin, researchers at MIT in Boston have been able to greatly reduce chemotherapy side effects by delivering the cell-killing drugs only to tumours. Human trials are happening now…


8. Sun Sea Anemone: Autoimmune Battler

Research into the venoms of this stinging anemone lead to the discovery of ShK-186, with potential for fighting autoimmune disorders like psoriasis, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, where the body attacks its own cells. Trials of a modified molecule (the original caused paralysis) now called Dalazatide are at human-stage trials against a variety of autoimmune diseases. The trials in mice reversed multiple sclerosis, giving hope to millions of sufferers of this incurable disease.



WHAT NEXT? Watch cone shells nail fish with venom strong enough to kill people – the venom is a cocktail of poisons that have around 300 drug patents associated with it.