Maxim Reality of the acclaimed UK indie group ‘The Prodigy’ once spat out the lyrics, “I got the poison, I got the remedy, I’ve got the pulsating rhythmical remedy” in their seminal track, ‘Poison’. I think he was talking about their brand of big-beat, electro, jungle, techno music but he could easily have been pondering the potential health benefits of venom from some of the world’s most dangerous flora and fauna! That’s right, poison from creatures like the Black Widow Spider, the Box Jellyfish and the aptly monikered Death Stalker Scorpion could be the key to treating and hopefully eradicating diseases as varied as Cancer, Heart Disease and Alzheimer’s. Was Sir Thomas Browne right when he said “Death is the cure for all diseases”?
Venom can kill you. Ask anyone who’s been stung by a Box Jellyfish off the coast of Australia and chances are you’ll not get an answer. According to National Geographic the venom of a Box Jellyfish can kill you within minutes as it attacks your heart, nervous system and skin cells. It is also so painful that you could go into shock and drown or die from heart failure. So to have a long, happy life you should probably steer as clear from these ‘Sea Wasps’ as humanly possible. Or should you?
Venom can save your life. I know this contradicts my previous statement completely but surprisingly both are entirely true. Dangerous animals and their deadly toxins could be the future of curing serious and terminal illnesses. Medicinal science has long been using the various components in nature to create new substances and drugs based on their findings from the world around us. Using pharmaceutical chemistry, we can now take ingredients from a natural substance, like the venom from a scorpion, and study it’s toxic properties to see exactly what the venom targets and how it attacks the body. For example the Box Jellyfish targets the nervous system and the heart so on a molecular level it has properties which specifically affect the heart and may even have properties that are resistant to types of bacteria found in our own bodies. Once these properties have been found scientists can then modify the venom to create a new drug which uses those properties to cure a disease. This is an execrably simple explanation of the process and it obviously takes years of research, massive funding and a lot of molecular science I can’t begin to explain but the basic description is pretty much sound. I was turned onto these lethal but integral new medicines by the insightful and enjoyable BBC programme, Australia with Simon Reeve, where he actually went searching for these toxic animals for the purpose of research as you can see in the clip below. It’s well worth a watch for these nuggets of info as well as a balanced view of a country that harbors so many conflicting attributes.
The theory of using venom in medicine isn’t a new one, whether it was cobra venom in traditional Chinese Medicine used for pain relief or in 1970′s America where viper’s venom was manufactured in drugs called ACE Inhibitors used to tackle hypertension. We’re at a point now where the evolution of natural venoms combined with advancements in molecular science and toxicology means that funding into this branch of medicine could help us cure not only existing diseases but also equip us to fight new plague-like infections in the future. The molecular properties of these substances are inherently useful to the scientific community and to the future of the human race if we’re going to tackle global viruses or terminal illnesses. There is a flipside to the coin, as any advancements will need to be tested on animals but as a price for the possible eradication of Cancer or Alzheimer’s is this a hang up we are going to have to sacrifice? As a global society we are also going to have to ensure our natural habitats are protected as many species have already been wiped out including varieties of poisonous frogs and certain venomous insects. We not only need to conserve these species for ecological reasons but also more selfishly those extinct species could have been integral to curing heart disease. That wasp you killed at a picnic last summer could have held the molecular information needed to eradicate malaria.
Maybe the saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is misplaced, maybe it should be ‘What kills you in a really, really painful manner could save your life’!