The Virtues of Venom


Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff from the Science Lab from howstuffworks.com.

Allison Loudermilk: Hey, this is Allison Loudermilk, the Science Editor at howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: And this is Robert Lamb, Science Writer at howstuffworks.com. Allison, you know the old saying a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down, right?

Allison Loudermilk: I do, I do. Is that Mary Poppins?

Robert Lamb: I think so.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: Mary Poppins said that famously. The whole idea is because the medicine is so horrible, it just tastes so yucky that you've got to have a massive amount of sugar to get a child to take it. The child will choose death over the yucky taste, so you've got to have an appropriate amount of sweetness to cancel it out.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. Well, you know you can go to the drugstore now and choose your flavoring?

Robert Lamb: Well, yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Like grape flavoring. It's still pretty foul, but -

Robert Lamb: Still that's basically - they're still doing the same thing. They're giving you the spoonful of sugar or awful grape flavoring, whatever.

Allison Loudermilk: To mask the odiousness of the medicine.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And it tends not to really mask it. It's like have you ever had your teeth polished and they used the stuff, it's not mint flavored, but it's cherry flavored, so it ends up not being - it's not really cherry. It's just kind of a slightly - it's even more yucky for trying to be something it's not.

Allison Loudermilk: Yes, yes.

Robert Lamb: But this leads to a question, how much sugar, if it's one spoon full of sugar, to counteract the medicine, how much sugar would you need if the cure for your sickness was, say, a snakebite or a sting from some sort of venomous spider? Quite a lot of sugar, right?

Allison Loudermilk: So it would seem.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So that's what we're talking about today. That's our roundabout intro to the use of venoms as a -

Allison Loudermilk: And the virtues of venom, actually.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: I think that venom really gets a bad wrap, mainly because when we think of venom we think of -

Robert Lamb: Horrible pain.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. We think of getting bit by an Inland Taipan, a snake whose venom is supposedly one of the most toxic in the world, and dying this terrible, agonizing death in a matter of minutes.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Or just do a Google image search and you'll see all number of horrible, black, gaping wounds and people with limbs swollen up like giant balloons.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. So venom, as you guys know, it comes with a built in delivery system. It's not just a defensive mechanism. It tends to be used as an offensive mechanism. You think of a snake and it has the venom. Well, it needs the means to deliver it, so the fangs are how or whatever means it chooses. So, aside from these agonizing deaths it induces, venom is actually pretty cool. There is a lot of interesting therapeutic research that's going on out there in science labs right now. Why are they doing this? Why is venom so promising? Well, because it's full of stuff like proteins that can manage pain and treat illnesses, so Robert and I thought we'd do a little survey of some of the research that's going on with the world's venomous creatures.

Of course, I am kicking it off with snakes. I think I will definitely say that I've had a turnaround with my feeling for snakes. They're just amazingly, amazingly cool organisms. We did a whole series of articles for an Animal Planet show called Wild Recon in which we examined the therapeutic benefits of venom, snake venom in particular. It's pretty amazing. So let's do a quick review of some of the key components found in different snake venoms. Some of the stuff that just may kill you or cause you great pain. You have stuff like cytotoxins. What are cytotoxins gonna do? They're gonna cause cell death basically. There's, actually, beginning of the digestion process for the snake. Rattlesnakes, for example, have cytotoxins.

Then you have stuff like hemotoxins and this gets the blood involved and you can cause blood clots and basically decimate the blood vessels. So a Gaboon Viper may have these hemotoxins.

Robert Lamb: That's a car isn't it, or a motorcycle? I'm picturing a fancy Japanese motorcycle.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, it's also a snake, yes. Yes, it is. Then you have stuff like neurotoxins and this is gonna effect the prey's nervous system and do stuff like block nerve impulses and make the prey become paralyzed or it could just make the nervous system collapse. A cobra and a sea snake might have these elements. So how is science interested in using venom? Any guesses?

Robert Lamb: Well, the cell death aspect would definitely lend itself well to fighting cancer or destroying any kind of cells that need to get got.

Allison Loudermilk: And that is true. Also, cobra venom contains a pretty powerful anti-coagulants. These anti-coagulants are used as a blood thinner in humans. There's a company that actually manufactures the drug called Exanta and they've tested it extensively in clinical trials with thousands and thousands of volunteers. The European Union has approved this particular drug draw from cobra venom for preventing clots after surgery, so that's pretty cool. It's a long way from the cobra in its habitat.

Robert Lamb: I have a cool use for cobra venom as well, if I may share.

Allison Loudermilk: What's that?

Robert Lamb: If you go to Thailand, you may occasionally see in a bar a fancy bottle of this amber liquid that has a whole cobra in it. This is a rice whiskey that has been infused with a dead cobra. They drink it over there, apparently, as a very manly thing.

Allison Loudermilk: Did you drink it while you were in Thailand?

Robert Lamb: No, I didn't. I think it's technically illegal. I wasn't - there's so much to be floored by over there without seeking out potentially deadly intoxicants. It's also, apparently, seen as an aphrodisiac. There's, actually, a really good review of it online at spiritsreview.com where he describes it, "As an interesting, if potentially neurotoxic, whisky." He describes the taste as, "Fishy, hot taste, almost like drinking peanut oil and alcohol with notes of ginseng." Apparently, it creates this kind of like tingling effect all over and this numbing, so potentially dangerous with very little application. But if you ever go to Thailand -

Allison Loudermilk: And you try it, be sure to let us know how that goes.

Robert Lamb: Do not try it because we're talking about it, for legal purposes. But if you have tried it, please, please e-mail us.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. So cobra venom is pretty popular in scientific circles because it's also being investigated to see how it affects MS or Multiple Sclerosis. You guys know that's a chronic disease of your central nervous system. So in patients with MS, the immune system is attacking the nerve cells and it's stripping off these protective, insulating sheaths on the nerve cells. Cobra toxin, however, is suppressing the immune system in animals with the disease. In fact, early research has been so promising that they have clinical trials going on now to study the effects of cobra toxin in human patients with MS, which is pretty neat.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: They've also used snake venoms to figure out ways to anesthetize patients during surgery. Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to snake venom. I mean, it just contains so many different elements that could be used for potential therapeutic purposes. But it takes a long way to go from a raw toxin to an FDA approved drug, so we'll see. I mean, this is definitely an area to watch.

Robert Lamb: It's also interesting in that, as is the case with a lot of these venoms we're talking about, older, traditional forms of medicine, we were using these thousands of years ago. Take ancient Indian ayurveda medicine. I found this really interesting, they'd collect the venom. Nowadays, you've probably seen footage where they take the snake and they stick its fangs over a glass and kind of like squeeze themselves a little beaker full of venom. But, apparently, they take the snake, force it to sink its fangs into a piece of fruit, and the fruit would absorb the venom. Then you would ingest the fruit if you needed to be treated for liver dysfunctions, eye disease, or various illnesses.

Allison Loudermilk: So what do you have on wasps and bees?

Robert Lamb: Well, wasps and bees. Wasps I find particularly fascinating.

Allison Loudermilk: You wrote an article about this for Discovery News, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Well, yeah. I actually wrote how wasps work as well. That was one of my earlier articles here at the site.

Allison Loudermilk: So you're aware of wasp knowledge?

Robert Lamb: I really grew to respect them. A lot of people were like, oh, a wasp and they were like oh, but they loved bees. Like, oh, God, let me buy some chap stick with a bee on it and let me dress my child like a bee for Halloween, but wasps, it's just kill on sight. Wasps are really amazing. They're - I could go on a whole tangent. You think you have too many poisonous spiders around your house, are you afraid of Brown Recluses and whatever?

Allison Loudermilk: I am, I am.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Get dirt daubers because dirt daubers - the ones that build their little nests out of mud, I think they're called different things in different regions, but those guys eat spiders like crazy. They'll bring them back for their young. Why do they bring spiders back for their young is key to why there's a lot of possibility for their venom.

Allison Loudermilk: Wasp venom, yeah.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Now, whether you're talking about wasps or bees - and bees are just evolved from wasps, okay. Only the females have stingers. That's because the stinger is an ovipositor.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Robert Lamb: This is an egg-laying organ. Only the females have it. The purpose of the ovipositor is to lay eggs inside of another organism. It's sharp, it sticks into another creatures body. The purpose of the venom would be to incapacitate the prey, but also to make changes in it to where it can be used as a living nursery for the growing young, which will eventually consume it from the inside out.

Allison Loudermilk: So interesting.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So to facilitate this, the venom inflicts such symptoms as developmental arrest, growth alteration, immune response suppression, paralysis, and behavior modification. So it's a complicated toxin. There's a lot of different things that can go on in these venoms. That means there's a lot of potential to apply these and turn them into medicines that we can use. There has been a fair amount of recent buzz over the mapping of the parasitic wasp genome for a species called Nasonia.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Robert Lamb: Researchers think that this holds a lot of potential in creating new medicines. In some cases, we might even be able to find particular venoms that we can actually use. But then sometimes researchers can use these as leads where we observe the changes that a particular venom causes and then we can try and create something that replicates those effects. That's really fas cinating. As far as bees go, there's a whole - since, again, everyone loves bees, but wasps are dirty creatures. There are people that are just crazy about bee curatives. They call it apitherapy. This is an alternative medicine area, but there are people that just are like, oh, you're sick, here have some bee wax, have some honey, have some - here, let some bees sting you and it's gonna be fine. They're really sold on the idea, but Western medicine is still kind of feeling it out.

Allison Loudermilk: Are there studies investigating?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Yeah. There are studies. It's just the scientists are not as sold on it as the alternative medicine crowd. Then there's arachnids and spiders, the ones that the wasps don't catch and fill with their young. Take scorpions for instance. Most people probably think of these as the things that you don't want in your shoes, right? Like, in Mexico alone, each year, 100,000 people suffer from scorpion stings. It can be pretty bad news. It can cause delirium, intense pain, etc. But Harvard researchers experimented with giving mice chlorotoxin from scorpion venom and they observed 84 percent less jawbone loss in the rats, okay. Now, this is how this works. The chlorotoxin blocks a protein that plays a major role in inflammation.

When it's blocked, it also decreases the activity of a protein that plays a role in stimulating bone eating osteoclasts, so they think it could have a lot of potential to help fight things like osteoporosis, etc.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So all of these elderly women who were hopping up on calcium and vitamins might instead be looking to the scorpion.

Robert Lamb: They just need a scorpion or two. You can wear them like broaches. This is really amazing. Radioactive scorpion venom, which sounds like a set up for a comic book hero, but - I think maybe it is like the scorpion - you know comic books, right? No.

Allison Loudermilk: Sure.

Robert Lamb: No, you don't know comic books. I think the scorpion is a - anyway. This has nothing to do with that. The venom of the yellow Israeli scorpion shows preferential attachment to glioma tumor cells in the brain or spine, all right. So scientists have figure out that they can attach a radioactive iodine 131 to an artificial version of this venom, so the artificial version of this venom then attaches to the tumor cell. Since it's got a little backpack of radiation, the radiation kills the cell. It's kind of used like a Trojan horse kind of deal.

Allison Loudermilk: Very cool.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: So let's go to the water then.

Robert Lamb: Let's do it. Let's hit the water. What have you got?

Allison Loudermilk: Jellyfish and fish. In the water, you're gonna find venomous jellyfish and plain old fish. In fact, one pretty interesting fact I came across when we were doing this venom research was that there are more venomous fish than snakes, according to this 2006 study published in the Journal of Heredity.

Robert Lamb: Well, that makes sense because the oceans are really the most - I mean, just the roughest area to try and cut out an evolutionary nitch.

Allison Loudermilk: Didn't you do a - well, so one of the species that they mention is the lionfish. Didn't you do a blog post about the lionfish?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Lionfish is a really horrible invasive species in the Atlantic waters. Most of the native species aren't used to handling the venom that these guys carry in their spine. They're beautiful fish and that's one of the reasons that they're - there are three different reasons that they're a big problem. One of them is that people get them for their saltwater aquariums and then they end up losing them or dumping them, etc. and now they're out of control.

Allison Loudermilk: Flushing them down the toilet.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, that's no good. So the animal in the water that really captured my interest was this box jellyfish. Have you ever heard of a box jellyfish?

Robert Lamb: No. Is it cube shaped? I'm picturing a cube jellyfish.

Allison Loudermilk: No. It's roughly the size of a peanut and it has one of the most toxic venoms in the world. One of the species is called the Malo kingi. How did it get its name? Well, from a U.S. tourist who was killed by one in 2002. A gentleman by the name of Robert King, who is presumably minding his own business and swimming off the coast of Australia when whamo, he was stung by one of these box jellyfish, the Malo kingi, and he died. It wasn't just any death, but when you get a sting from one of these it can lead to symptoms like shooting pains in your muscles and chest, you get some muscle cramps in your arms, you get severe pain in the back, and in your kidneys, a burning sensation of the skin and face, headaches. Oh, this is my favorite one as far as one of these can be a favorite, a psychological phenomenon like the feeling of impending death.

Robert Lamb: Wow.

Allison Loudermilk: That is a lot of work for just one venom by a peanut size jellyfish. It's gotten so bad and people are so afraid of getting stung by these particular jellyfish that Aussie lifeguards sometimes wear pantyhose. Now, I'm not kidding. Australian lifeguards sometimes wear pantyhose on their arms and legs to prevent the jellies from stinging. I guess because -

Robert Lamb: I just hate the - I mean, they should feel comfortable wearing the pantyhose anyway. They shouldn't have to feel like they need to make an excuse about crazy jellyfish. But, no, it really actually prevents being stung?

Allison Loudermilk: This is some of the lore that's out there. People do actually do it.

Robert Lamb: Do they wear the stocking over their head, too?

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So they can do a bank heist right after?

Robert Lamb: How do you get a tan?

Allison Loudermilk: I'm gonna go swimming, put on my pantyhose, then I'm gonna pull my stocking over my head, and go do a bank heist. I don't know. So they've been studying this box jellyfish to figure out a product that could protect bathers from being stung, other than wearing pantyhose, of course. Researchers are also looking to find out how venoms have evolved in box jellies and they're developing anti-venoms for the stings because these are a serious problem in Australian waters.

Robert Lamb: It just seems like everything in Australia is poisonous. Except for maybe the kangaroos and the koalas, but they're probably packing a stinger somewhere. We just haven't noticed it yet.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. That snake I mentioned at the beginning, the most toxic snake in the world, also a native of Australia.

Robert Lamb: I don't know how you guys do it, you Aussie's.

Allison Loudermilk: Tell me about frogs.

Robert Lamb: Oh, well, frogs. Well, traditional Chinese medicine has incorporated frogs for thousands of years. Modern Western medicine is just kind of catching up with all of this. So here are just a few frogs that we think have some potential. There's the giant leaf frog.

Allison Loudermilk: Leaf?

Robert Lamb: Giant leaf frog.

Allison Loudermilk: Not leap frog?

Robert Lamb: Not leap frog.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Rober t Lamb

That's -

Allison Loudermilk: Okay, gotcha.

Robert Lamb: That's a different thing entirely. But it has peptides in its venom that can reduce blood pressure by 50 percent in small doses under lab conditions. So don't go buying them on eBay and sticking them to your body. The same frog also produces a peptide that stops blood from clotting. They think this might be useful to fight deep vein thrombosis. This is the condition that you're supposed to be wary of if you're taking any long flights in economy.

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, yeah. That's why you're supposed to walk around.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. This is also why if you've taken any long flights recently and you noticed the stewardesses handing out frogs at the end of the flight, that's what this is about. All right. Then there's the African running frog. This one actually doesn't have any medical -

Allison Loudermilk: Significance.

Robert Lamb: - significance. But since it uses a venom to kill insects for prey, they think it might be useful in coating crops to keep pests away. Also, the wasps that I mentioned earlier, the parasitic wasps, they think that one also might have a lot of potential as a pesticide.

Allison Loudermilk: So venom being used as pesticide, interesting.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Back to frogs though, there's the Australian tree frog, which has shown some success in fighting conditions that are resistant to antibiotics. This is because the venom imbeds in the membrane of the bacteria and bursts the cell. They can't really become immune to that. Then there's the North American Pond Frog. They found molecules in this particular venom inhibit the growth of cancer tumors. There's some research going into that and seeing what applications that might have in fighting cancer. This seems like frogs, in addition to coating your poison darts to shoot out of your blowguns, they have a lot of medical possibilities as well.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. Definitely seems that there's a lot of venom research that could be used for therapeutic purposes for people with heart problems. That keeps coming up. People with blood pressure.

Robert Lamb: I don't think they've really looked into this, but I think energy drinks could be a big area of development.

Allison Loudermilk: Isn't there one called Venom?

Robert Lamb: I think there's one called Venom, but I didn't look it up, so I don't know that it actually has scorpion venom. You could have a whole line. Each one has a different cartoon animal on it. Like one has a wasp, then there's a scorpion that's using his claws to lift weighs. Market it towards - each one could be a specific animal marketed towards a particular extreme sport or high energy, macho, caffeine kind of a thing.

Allison Loudermilk: All right. So let's go from frogs to our last animal. Our last animal is a mammal, the platypus. We've covered reptiles, spiders, jellyfish, snakes, frogs, but what about mammals? I don't tend to think of venomous mammals, do you?

Robert Lamb: No.

Allison Loudermilk: Like a venomous ape?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I love the idea of a venomous ape, but I completely made it up. That's the thing, the platypus really sounds like a made up animal.

Allison Loudermilk: It really does.

Robert Lamb: Tell us about this.

Allison Loudermilk: In fact, they thought it was made up. There was a platypus that was sent to the Brits a while, while back, you know, eons ago. The Brits didn't believe what it was, so they cut - they thought it was a -

Robert Lamb: They thought somebody sewed it together like a -

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. They thought it was a fake animal because, apparently, Chinese folks had been known to do this. They made up an animal called an Eastern Mermaid, which I -

Robert Lamb: Oh, yeah, yeah. It was like the monkey and the fish parts.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So they thought that this platypus was a similar thing.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. This kind of Coney Island freak show kind of stuff.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, so platypus you guys probably remember. It's the duckbilled, furry creature. It's this weird combo of a bird, a reptile, and a mammal, but it actually is a mammal. They are like these oddballs of the animal kingdom. But the most interesting thing is, well, one of the most interesting things in platypus lore is that the males have these venomous spurs on the back of each of their hind legs. The females have the spurs, too, but they fall off before adulthood. The only thing that researchers can think of for the spurs is that they're used when males are ducking it out for a mate. So nobody's died from a platypus poisoning per se. In fact, we have an article of that same name, Could a Platypus Poison Me?, by Cristen Conger I believe. You should check it out. So there are no known human fatalities, but surely some dogs have died.

In case you're thinking that platypus venom is nothing in the venom kingdom, in humans the pain caused by platypus venom isn't relieved by morphine, so that's pretty excruciating. So Aussie researchers, again comes down to Australia, they're looking into how platypus venom could be used for pain management. There's also a lot of pain management themes going through these venom applications. They're also really interested in the platypus just generally because it's the oldest surviving branch of all mammals living today. In addition, they've undertaken a draft genome analysis of the duckbilled platypus. So far we've seen platypus venom show positive results in reducing great amounts of pain and that's about it. So it seems like platypus venom research is wide open if any of you guys are looking for an area of research to get going in.

Robert Lamb: And it sounds like the place to go is Australia for any of these venom research places. Just make sure you don't get a run in your pantyhose or that could be the last mistake you make.

Allison Loudermilk: So if you've been bitten by a venomous animal or used one of the medicines we mentioned or drank the cobra drink in Thailand -

Robert Lamb: Yes. Do e-mail us if you've actually consumed that beverage because I'm very interested to heard tales about it.

Allison Loudermilk: Yes. Send us an e-mail at sciencestuff@howstuffworks.com or you can check out some of our related content, like Do Jellyfish Have the Deadliest Venom in the World? Or Cristen Conger fine article that we just mentioned on the platypus. Or visit the blogs. That's all we've got. Thanks for listening.

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