Researching venoms carry obvious risks, but the University of Queensland's Dr Bryan Fry has finally found one he won't take. Drug traffickers have gained control of one of his research sites, and he's been forced to look elsewhere for specimens. This could delay the arrival of a different sort of drug – a life-saving one.
Fry has happily tackled the world's most venomous species. He's been bitten by snakes many times and felt his heart stop after being stung by a scorpion deep in the Amazon jungles far from medical aid. Ironically, in this case he's trying to study a species whose venom is quite harmless to humans; the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundu.
Vampire bats can carry rabies and other diseases, but their venom itself is no threat, merely increasing the flow of blood so the bat can feed and scarper before its presence is noticed. The amount of blood taken is so small it can't hurt a healthy individual.
“Vampire bat venom has a really rich history for drug design,” Fry told IFLScience. “It is already used to break up blood clots for stroke, but no one thought to look at what the venoms were doing to blood vessels themselves.” Fry did, and his work has been published in Toxins, revealing the venom contains a compound very similar to calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), used by mammals to dilate their blood vessels.
Human CGRP has a wide range of biological effects, but the vampire bat equivalent is much more specific. This makes it much less likely there will be side effects if used against hypertension or to treat kidney disease, Fry explained to IFLScience. According to Fry, bat venom is far less likely to promote an immune response in humans than something from invertebrate blood-suckers, such as mosquitoes.
Although the peptides already identified from bat venom have potential, Fry thinks we can do better. “We could spend years in the lab tinkering with the existing variations, or go looking at what evolution has done through biodiversity,” he said.
This all sounds promising, right?
Unfortunately, the latter involves testing a wider array of bats and Fry's path is blocked because drug traffickers have made the giant cave system where he had collected bats unsafe.
Fry has been kidnapped by revolutionaries in Colombia (they let him go when they saw all the deadly snakes he'd collected), and had his safehouse blown up in Pakistan shortly after he left, but has decided he's over tackling armed humans. Few zoos have vampire bats, and they tend to be inbred, so Fry is currently seeking permission to collect bats in Costa Rica. He expects this to be a two-year process and is deeply frustrated.
“The only thing I am afraid of is paperwork,” he said.