We normally associate venom with death or, at the very least, excruciating pain. Produced by a whole menagerie of animals, from bullet ants to platypuses, the toxins are injected into their victim, and lead to an estimated 57,000 human deaths per year. Yet there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that we may be able to harness these chemicals not to kill people, but to heal them.
Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute have developed a new technique that could vastly cut the time it currently takes to test a venom for its specific target, and thus its medicinal possibilities. “Until now we haven't had a way to seriously harness venoms' vast therapeutic potential,” explains Richard A. Lerner, the principal investigator of the study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, in a statement.
One of the main reasons that the use of venoms as medicine has been so slow to take off is due to the difficulty in isolating and analyzing the toxins, and thus figuring out what their exact effect and target within the body is. Currently, those wanting to do so need to get their hands on large quantities of the venom, which then has to be purified, until finally performing repeated lab-dish tests. This takes a long time and is often prohibitively expensive.
The researchers instead turned to a database of venoms already compiled. They then searched for toxins that showed protein sequences of interest, whittling their list down to 589 possibilities. From these, they artificially synthesized the genes that code for the venom, which after all is just a protein, and then inserted them into a virus, before infecting cells with it. The protein sequences of interest were those that may influence a specific protein known as Kv1.3, which are found on the surface of T-cells and influence their proliferation and migration.
T-cells are components of the immune system, and Kv1.3 is of specific interest to drug companies as it is thought to be involved in inflammatory disorders such as multiple sclerosis. In order to test whether or not the venom produced by the viruses was impacting the Kv1.3 proteins of the infected cells, the researchers added a fluorescent protein that turned on when an interaction between the two occurred. From this, they found that out of the 589 selected, 27 had likely Kv1.3-blocking activity, meaning that they could be of use for therapeutics.
The researchers hope that the new technique, which doesn’t actually require any venom to start with, will help speed up the analysis and discovery of new venom-derived proteins that could potentially benefit medicine.