Captopril, an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor that imitates venom of South American pit viper, was approved by FDA in 1980
Could snake or insect venom yield the next big treatment for diabetes or cancer?
Researchers think so — and they’re spending lots of time with compounds found in the venom of animals such as scorpions, snakes and snails in the hopes they’ll yield new drugs.
In a feature for the journal PNAS, Amy McDermott explores the trend and its fascinating history.
The science behind venom-derived drugs is complex ( Getty )
“The pharmaceutical industry has a growing interest in venom, as some companies opt to return to drug discovery inspired by natural compounds, a trend that fell out of fashion about 40 years ago,” she writes.
Captopril, an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor with an ingredient that imitates the venom of a South American pit viper called jararaca, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1980. Today, it’s one of 10 approved drugs that mimic the compounds that make the bites of snakes and other creatures so effective.
McDermott explores venom’s fall from scientific favour, which researchers attribute to the complexity of the compounds.
It’s difficult to target drugs to specific body systems without causing havoc in other systems, and researchers are facing thornier challenges as they try to harness venom’s best qualities — the ability to act on specific biological pathways.
Serious roadblocks remain, but they’re being overcome by a new generation of scientists who think they can tackle the chemistry challenge.
The science behind venom-derived drugs is complex, but McDermott makes it accessible — and points to intriguing possibilities for patients with cancer, diabetes, arthritis, pain and more. For now, those advances slither just out of reach.
But if the scientists she interviews have anything to do with it, they’ll soon turn toxins into medical treasures.