Bite me: Colorado study finds snake venoms hold promise for curing cancers

February 20, 2020

While the “snake oil salesmen” of the past were peddling fraudulent cures, they actually might have been on the right track: According to a team of scientists at the University of Northern Colorado, snake venom may be the remedy for cancer, Denver’s CBS News affiliate reports.

Dr. Stephen Mackessy, a professor at UNC’s School of Biology told CBS4 that, from rattlesnakes to vipers, studies by his students have shown that snake venoms can attack human cancer cells in unique ways.

 “These are compounds that have evolved to kill other animals, and kill things … in general, wreak havoc with living systems,” Mackessy told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “It turns out they are actually a very logical place to look for therapeutics.”

Snake venoms have been used since the 1950s to treat conditions such as high blood pressure in millions of people worldwide. However, Mackessy told the news outlet, his lab is one of the first to research the possible uses of venom compounds to battle various forms of cancer.

“When you think about looking for a therapeutic drug, you don’t turn first to something like a venom or toxin as a source,” Mackessy said.

He noted that  one of  his Ph.D. candidates, Tanner Harvey, has specifically been researching viper venoms—some of which originate in habitats as close to UNC as southern Arizona. Each venom, in different doses, reacts to cancers in distinctive ways.

“[One viper venom] … kills breast cancer really quickly at low doses. And, it kills colon cancer at low doses. But, it doesn’t kill melanoma,” Tanner Harvey told CBS4.

However, other venoms strongly react to melanoma.

Killing the cancer with venom isn’t hard. It’s not killing the patient at the same time that’s the challenge. The team at UNC said their challenge is finding which compounds can be combined with other remedies to kill cancer efficiently, while preserving other life-dependent cells.

“[Finding the proper doses and mixes] is just like panning for gold,” Harvey said.

The study is still in preliminary phases. Once the team believes it has a solid answer to which venom compounds are safe to battle cancer with, the research would press on to one day potentially meet clinical studies.

And, while Mackessy’s team is working toward the goal of curing cancers, another takeaway from their research that both Mackessy and Harvey hope for is that it will encourage the public to stop senselessly killing snakes simply out of fear.

“You never really know what is going to come from a natural source, even something like a rattlesnake,” Mackessy said. “It may be, in fact, that these dangerous animals house in their venom something that one day may be lifesaving for you, or your family members.”

Research contact: @CBSNews

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