The venom from snakes and other deadly lizards could be used to help treat or even cure diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, scientists have revealed.
Snake venom contains a huge variety of lethal molecules called toxins which, due to the way they work, make useful targets for new drugs. Because toxins are harmful, drug developers have to modify them to retain their potency and make them safe for drug use.
However, a joint British-Australian study of venom and tissue gene sequences in snakes has now found that the toxins that make snake and lizard venom lethal can evolve back into completely harmless molecules, opening the door to new drug treatments for serious conditions such as diabetes and cancer.
Dr Wolfgang Wüster from Bangor University, a co-author of the study, explained: “Many snake venom toxins target the same physiological pathways that doctors would like to target to treat a variety of medical conditions. Understanding how toxins can be tamed into harmless physiological proteins may aid development of cures.”
Lead researcher Dr Nicholas Casewell, from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, commented: “Our results demonstrate that the evolution of venoms is a really complex process.
“The venom gland of snakes appears to be a melting pot for evolving new functions for molecules, some of which are retained in venom for killing prey, while others go on to serve new functions in other tissues in the body.”
Gavin Huttley, from the Australian National University, said: “This is proof-of-principle that an otherwise toxic molecule can be modified to provide benefit to an organism, supporting interest in exploring their pharmaceutical potential. It’s just another tool in the arsenal to provide opportunities to target human diseases that we really want to fix.”
The findings are published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Communications.

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