Painkillers from poisons

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One of my favourite books is one called Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre. It tells of a travelling healer in post-apocalyptic America who uses three snakes to generate medicine.

Well, turns out, it’s true. And it’s not just snakes – scientists have found beneficial effects from the venom of many creatures, from snakes to spiders to sea snails to sun anemones.

Getting medical benefits from the natural world is not new, of course: humans have been using herbs and animal products  in healing for thousands of years.

More recently, the first venom-derived drug, copied from a pit viper venom peptide, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1981 to treat hypertension. Several more drugs were released to treat cardiovascular conditions, and in 2004 the first venom-derived painkiller was approved.

But even that’s not the end of it. Research into the human nervous and immune systems has provided knowledge that will allow development of venom-derived drugs that target auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Professor Glenn King of the University of Queensland, in addition to various medicinal venom-derived projects, is also researching insecticides based on spider venom. These eco-friendly insecticides would target crop and livestock pests, as well as vectors of human and animal diseases (such as fleas).

There are a couple of non-obvious points here. One is that we are starting to mimic the attributes of various animals (see the previous post about the vision of the mantis shrimp), although they did it first, and they’re still doing it best.

The other point regards the value of biodiversity. We’ve talked about this in a couple of previous posts (What is biodiversity and why does it matter? and Why do we need biodiversity?), and will undoubtedly talk about it in future posts. But this particular topic makes it clear that we won’t know the value of various plants and animals until we find out. So blithely destroying an ecosystem means that we might also be destroying something that could have been incredibly useful, if only we’d known about it.

Think about that the next time someone you know develops an untreatable illness – have we already destroyed what might have saved them?

[Featured image: Malabar pit viper. Image courtesy of Chinmayisk, licensed under Creative Commons.]


  1. Hello,
    This is a wonderful article. I was wondering if there are any ways that, for example, spider’s venom could be bad to biodiversity?

    1. Hi Lea,

      Interesting question! In general, I’d say that the only way that a species’ adaptation could be bad for biodiversity is if the adaptation is too effective and the species reproduce too fast. So, for example, if a predator were too successful at catching prey, and they bred really fast, they might catch all the prey available too quickly for the prey species to repopulate. That would result in both the prey and predator species dying out, and would also affect other species up and down the food chain: other predators on that prey species might also die out, whatever the prey species fed on would burgeon and possibly crowd out other species, and so on. All of which could be possibly catastrophic for the local ecosystem.

      In the case of spider venom, the spiders prey on a variety of insects (and sometimes small mammals or reptiles), so they’re unlikely to wipe out any particular prey species. The adaptation also usually takes time to spread through the population, so some prey species evolve a resistance to the venom or other avoidance mechanisms.

      That’s what makes humans so devastating for the global ecosystem: we breed fast, and we wipe out species all over the food chain, not merely to survive, but often for profit, so humans are definitely bad for biodiversity. Spiders, on the other hand, probably aren’t a threat to biodiversity.

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