04:23am Sunday 22 October 2017

Snakes alive: deadly venom can save lives

Dr Gavin Huttley from The John Curtin School of Medical Research is part of the international team who discovered that the toxins that make snake and lizard venom deadly can evolve back into completely harmless molecules, raising the possibility that they could be developed into drugs. Their findings are published in Nature Communications today.

“Our work highlights a fascinating relationship between molecules that make up reptile venom and normal cellular proteins,” Dr Huttley said.

“The results strongly suggest that venom molecules have been modified for non-venom purposes in nature. This is proof-of-principle that an otherwise toxic molecule can be modified to provide benefit to an organism, supporting interest in exploring their pharmaceutical potential.”

Lead author of the study Dr Nicholas Caswell from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK said that the results demonstrate the complex evolution of snake venom.

“The venom gland of a snake appears to be a melting pot for evolving new functions for molecules, some of which are retained in venom for killing prey, while others go on to serve new functions in other tissues in the body,” he said.

Dr Wolfgang Wüster from Bangor University, a co-author of the study, said the team’s discovery opens the door to a new era of drug discovery.

“Many snake venom toxins target the same physiological pathways that doctors would like to target to treat a variety of medical conditions,” he said.

“Understanding how toxins can be tamed into harmless physiological proteins may aid the development of cures from venom.”

The Australian National University


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