The Possible Healing Powers of Animal Venom

By Victoria Kim 01/04/16

In the case of some animal venoms, what doesn't kill you could potentially heal you. 

Snake Venom
Photo via Shutterstock

A new venom database is just scratching the surface of the potential therapeutic value of animal venom. Created by Columbia University data scientists Nicholas Tatonetti and Joseph Romano, the Venom Knowledge Base (Venom KB) is the first online database of known animal toxins and their physiological effects on humans.

Venoms and their components have been used for therapeutic purposes for millennia, treating illnesses as varied as chronic pain, psychiatric disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. Different mixtures of substances including proteins, peptides and sugars account for how different venoms affect the body. 

Scientists believe they can harness these properties for use in drugs by mimicking or altering how these toxins affect specific human cells. The Venom KB can facilitate this process, with its growing catalog of thousands of published medical studies that describe different venoms’ specific effects on the body.

“With this list we can take stock of what we know about venoms and their therapeutic effects,” said Tatonetti in a statement. “The question now is: How can we use this information with other databases to discover new compounds and therapies?”

So far, about a dozen major drugs are made from animal venoms. One example is a drug for type 2 diabetes medicine called Byetta, which is made from exenatide, a toxin found in the saliva of the Gila monster.

Last year, Australian researchers reported creating a drug using the venom from the ocean-dwelling cone snail that is reportedly 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The Gila monster, cone snail, Malayan pit viper, and European fire-bellied toad account for about 18% of the 5,117 venom-related studies now catalogued in Venom KB. However, there are 10 million or more venomous species that have yet to be studied.

Tatonetti and Romano’s next step is investigating the potential therapeutic uses of venom from the African black mamba snake for treating chronic pain, diabetes and heart disease.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr