Some think venom could prove the key component in new drug therapies aimed at slowing or halting cancer’s advance without as many side effects.
Humans have worshiped snakes for thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt the Nile Cobra adorned the crown of the pharaoh. In Ancient Greece they could be found in many medical symbols, some of which we still use today, such as the Rod of Asclepius. Further East in India, snakes have their own festival; Nag Panchami is a day when snakes are venerated for their power over the rains. The snake even has its own spot on the Chinese zodiac. And in non-Eurasian cultures, snakes were welcomed in Peru and Mexico, where they were revered as mortal forms of the gods. But the snake’s image hasn’t always been so positive. In Judaism and Christianity, it often represents sin, evil, and the devil.
One of the most well-known symbols of the snake is the Ouroboros, which is an image of a snake eating its own tail. Said to represent the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the Ouroboros may seem like an anachronistic symbol, but it’s quite fitting; the snake, if recent studies are to be believed, may soon resume its honored place in the history of medicine.
A protein called eristostatin, taken from the venom of the Asian Sand Viper, could be helpful in the fight against melanoma and other cancers, according to a study published this year by Toxicon, the journal of toxicology.
“I was drawn to the idea of using a component in venom, something most people think of as deadly, to combat cancer,” said Dr. Stefan Hailey, a student working on his Masters when he co-authored the study back in 2010. While all of the components of venom taken together are lethal, individually they can be quite beneficial.
Disintegrins, proteins found in the venom of many vipers, for example, act as binding partners to integrins, which play a large role in several different cellular processes. Hailey and his colleagues found that eristostatin, one of those disintegrins, which normally bonds to platelets in a snake’s victim and carries toxins throughout the circulatory system, also bonded to melanoma cells in mice and kept tumors from metastasizing into other parts of the body.
Hailey’s finding isn’t the result of some lucky guess, though; it is the culmination of research that began in the middle of the 20th century. Hailey’s adviser and a co-author on the Toxicon study, Dr. Mary Ann McLane, has been studying the potential benefits of snake venom since the 1980s under Dr. Stefan Niebiarowski.
“Stefan was the best example of a scientist,” McLane said. “He noticed differences that others might not, he always questioned what he didn’t understand, he was adept at creating scientific experiments out of his hypotheses, and, most of all, he was a collaborator.” Niebiarowski was interested in how different snake venoms affected victims differently. Some induced paralysis, while others induced circulatory collapse.
In the late 1980s Niebiarowski began working with Chinese researchers on breaking down the components of snake venom and their effects. Using new techniques in atomic force microscopy, he and his partners found out that venom was made of many different proteins and molecules, including the aforementioned disintegrins, neurotoxins, and hydrolases.