Pet Improvement: Venom research

Randall Thomason, biochemist, holding an Indian spectacled cobra, or Naja naja. (Courtesy photo)

Back in the ‘70s, there was emerging research on the potential for venom as a healing medicine. This is the poison secreted and injected by many diverse creatures, to include snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, jellyfish, bees, ants, wasps and more.

As a young man taking undergraduate classes in biochemistry, Randall Thomason became fascinated with the possibilities of venom research. Using a neurotoxin to heal neurological disorders seemed contradictory but that was not the case.

Venom is primarily complex proteins and enzymes. The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, these then combine to create unique peptide chains. This is what makes the sting or bites deadly, or at least very painful. There can be hundreds of these peptides in just one creature’s venom and it varies between species.

Thomason’s first exposure to handling venomous snakes was in the lab. He got to watch the instructors hook the deadly animals and remove them from their enclosures. Snake hooks vary in size and length, but a typical one is metal and about three feet long with a large hook on the end. The animal is gently balanced on the hook about mid-way through its body and lifted. The goal to keep them steady and calm while they are moved to a different location to be milked of the venom. The snakes head is then held and pressed down onto a covered glass jar to collect the sample.

There are dangers; steady and calm is not always the case. Unlike many of the snakes that we see on TV, which might have been tranquilized, there are species such as the green mamba and black forest cobra that are extremely hard to handle. These snakes can stand straight up on the hook and get unruly. 

I got to witness this once and that was enough. Thomason had donated some snakes to a local zoo. As he pulled a cobra out of the bag it went berserk. Standing five feet up on the hook and flailing around, striking out at everyone. Well, we all ran and hid behind a door, except he couldn’t. He had to wrangle this animal grabbing his tail and getting him under control.

Texas A&M University is home to the National Natural Toxins Research Center and their goal is to lead to discoveries of medically important toxins found in snake venoms. The intention is that the venom will be therapeutic in treating strokes, heart attacks, metastasis of tumors and many other medical conditions.

One successful drug that was developed in the 1970s is captopril. This is derived from a peptide found in the venom of the Brazilian viper. It has potent blood-thinning ability and is a common treatment for hypertension.

Byetta is derived from the Gila monster and has the potential to treat Type 2 Diabetes by slowing overproduction of sugar and stimulating the release of insulin. In Cuba, the blue scorpion’s venom is being investigated for the potential to cure breast cancer. There is currently a homeopathic product available, but this is not an FDA approved drug. Bee venom is being researched for its potential to treat Lyme disease and other bacterial infections.

Jane Laulis is an avid pet lover. She hosts a pet talk radio show and is involved with pets from research to retail, nutrition to pet food manufacturing. She lives on the coast with her scientist husband, ocean faring dogs, indoor cats, exotic snakes and a charm of hummingbirds. She may be reached at [email protected]


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