venom: mother nature's unexpected cure-all?

Snakes.  Spiders.  Centipedes.  Jellyfish.  Scorpions.  Just the mention of these creepy critters is enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies.  From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are actually ‘programmed’ to fear them, and rightly so: inducing reactions from wild muscle spasms to paralysis and coma, an encounter with a venomous animal often proves fatal.

But scientists and doctors from around the world are finding ways to harness the power of these creatures’ fascinating bio-weapon.  Venom is, at its core, a set of proteins not too different from those already found in our own bodies.  Our natural proteins are like supervisors, telling our cells where to go and what to do, but those in venom are mutated and give harmful instructions.  Some venoms attack the blood while others affect the nervous system; some cause internal bleeding while others suffocate the victim.  Because each species’ secretion is its own unique combination of chemicals, the potential is extensive for isolating specific components for a multitude of purposes.

Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases…  These are merely a sampling of the medical conditions that are either currently being treated with venom and its derivatives, or show promise to be so in the future, and the research continues.  One of the most notable discoveries is that of an aggressive Brazilian wasp (Polybia Paulista), which may have a future in cancer treatment. 

Polybia Paulista:  the brazilian wasp's whose venom may target only cancerous cells

Polybia Paulista: the brazilian wasp's whose venom may target only cancerous cells

Unlike healthy cells, cancerous ones adorn themselves with two specific compounds called phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylethanolamine (PS and PE respectively), both of which happen to be targeted by MP1, a peptide in the wasp’s venom.  MP1’s method of destruction is to attach itself to a bacteria cell and open holes in the membrane, allowing its contents to leak out. 

Breast Cancer Cell. wikimedia commons

Breast Cancer Cell. wikimedia commons

In observations of MP1 pitted against cancer cells, the presence of PS has shown it to be seven times more likely that the peptide will attach itself to the cell’s membrane, and the presence of PE encourages larger holes—as many as 20-30 times larger than without PE.  Because MP1 focuses on the cancerous cells and leaves the red blood cells alone, a venom-based treatment could be an exceptionally healthier and safer alternative to current chemotherapy methods.

While we are still a far cry from a singular cure-all, venom can certainly be praised as a multi-faceted medical jackpot.  The more we learn about the details of these creepy-crawlies’ defense systems, the further we can expand into the development of their healing properties.  Mother Nature must have a sense of irony, that the creatures we so deeply fear may be the very things that save us.

Author: Justin Haley Philip
What do you think of venom's miraculous properties?  Share with us in the comments below!

Want to know more?
For a fascinating docu-vid, click here.
For more species-specific info, click here.