What can dried-up, 80-year-old snake venom do?

Oxyuranus microlepidotus by AllenMcC on Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FierceSnakeOlive.jpg

The inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), possibly the most venomous snake alive. (AllenMcC/Wikimedia Commons)

Kill, for one thing, as Ed Yong reports on his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, in a post about the discovery of a trove of dried historic venom samples at the Australian Venom Research Unit:

Fry’s team found that they contained the same cocktail of proteins and had the same toxic effects as venom that had been recently collected from modern snakes of the same species. Death adder venom from the 1960s could still stop neurons from communicating with muscles. Taipan and tiger snake venom from the 1950s could still clot blood. The only vial that contained ineffective venom was also the only one where the rubber seal had eroded. Otherwise, the toxins were in great shape.

But more importantly, it might still also harbor proteins or other molecules with powerful medical effects. As Yong points out, “there’s a long history of developing important medicines from animal venoms,” linking to a 2013 article by National Geographic writer Jennifer Holland called, “The Bite that Heals.” Holland writes:

Ironically, the properties that make venom deadly are also what make it so valuable for medicine. Many venom toxins target the same molecules that need to be controlled to treat diseases. Venom works fast and is highly specific. Its active components—those peptides and proteins, working as toxins and enzymes—target particular molecules, fitting into them like keys into locks. Most medicines work the same way, fitting into and controlling molecular locks to thwart ill effects. It’s a challenge to find the toxin that hits only a certain target, but already top medicines for heart disease and diabetes have been derived from venom. New treatments for autoimmune diseases, cancer, and pain could be available within a decade.

 

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