The venomous creatures of our world—specifically those that include spiders, scorpions, snakes and various living entities from the sea—have weaponry that are some of nature’s most efficient killers.
The toxic proteins and peptides that make up the complex chemical structures of lethal venoms are designed to acutely kill—to stop living things in their tracks. The purpose of venom is two-fold: to incapacitate potential food sources and to be the first line of defense against attack.
Various venoms have different lethal effects. Some attack the nervous system and cause paralysis by blocking the messages that travel between nerves and muscles. Other venoms eat away at molecules so that cells and tissue necrotize; that is, they lose their integrity and fall apart (similar to the effects of flesh-eating bacteria). And yet other venoms change the integrity of blood and its components to either of the two extremes—some kill by clotting blood and stopping the heart while others prevent clotting and trigger deadly bleeding.
Whatever the mechanism of action in which a specific venom kills, all are multifaceted and multitasking. With a single bite or sting, dozens and even hundreds of micro-toxins—some with redundant jobs and others with unique ones—go to work to synergistically kill the target. One article I read about venoms likened a lethal sting to administering a poison to an adversary while simultaneously jabbing the victim with a knife and finishing the person off with a bullet to the head. Truly, venoms are complex concoctions of deadly toxins.
Using any of these venoms as a poison would be a most efficient kill method, but today I’d like to discuss their benefits and how they can be used to improve rather than eliminate human life.
Modern scientific research shows that the same properties that make venoms so deadly are also what make them so valuable as healing medicines. Venom works fast and is highly specific, targeting particular molecules (biochemical receptors) and fitting into them like keys into locks. Most medications work in the same way, fitting and locking into these biochemical receptors on the surface of cells. These receptors receive chemical signals from outside the body (such as an adminsitered drug or the toxins in venom) to produce a specific effect—whether that effect is beneficial or lethal.
An interesting example of the benefits of venom was published a couple of years ago in a National Geographic article about a young boy with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic autoimmune disease similar to spinal arthritis. This boy went swimming while on vacation in Mexico. Unknowingly, he donned his swim trunks in which a bark scorpion had taken up residence. Shortly after jumping into the pool, a burning pain ripped through the back of his thigh and eventually the scorpion was discovered, captured and identified. Since that type of scorpion was common to the area, an antivenin was available and administered by injection.
What happened next is the remarkable part of this story. In the days after the scorpion sting, the pain of his spinal disease went away. More remarkable is that up to the present time (according to the article), this boy remains pain free and off of most of his medications for the disease.
Currently, some of the most used medicines for heart disease were originally derived from snake venom. Other venoms are believed to have realistic potential to treat conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis.
I’ve blogged in the past about tetrodotoxin from the puffer fish as a lethal weapon, but medical researchers studying the chemical have discovered intricate details regarding how human nerve cells communicate.
At this point, fewer than a thousand toxins have been screened for medicinal value, but that research has produced more than a dozen entirely new drugs that are currently on the market. Today, these new drugs are saving and improving the quality of human life.
The study of venom and its effects on the human body has opened the door to whole new areas of research into the pharmacological benefits of these toxic chemicals.
In my next blog, I’ll discuss the healing and curative properties of specific venoms.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!