Could Snake Venom Treat Cancer?

Small amounts of snake venom may one day help treat cancer.
By on 02/24/2020 2:00 PM

Source: MedicineNet Health News

"The dose makes the poison," said Swiss doctor and chemist Paracelsus, meaning a substance is toxic only if it is present in the body in a high enough concentration. But now researchers at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) believe small amounts of poisonous snake venom may one day help treat cancer.

Researchers in the lab of UNC Professor of Biology Steve Mackessy, Ph.D., are studying venoms from several species of snakes looking for potential molecules that may have therapeutic properties. In a podcast discussing his work, Mackessy explains that when analyzing venoms he wonders: "Do they have compounds in them that are interesting, biologically? Interesting potentially therapeutically?"

Mackessy and his team isolate compounds from snake venom and test them on human cancer cells cultured in the lab. Venoms from various snakes have different activity against cancer cells. For example, his group discovered that a toxin isolated from Indian snake venom had effects on a certain type of colon cancer cells in the lab, he said in the podcast.

Mackessy further discussed how certain compounds from snake venom are capable of inducing programmed cell death, or apoptosis. One key to determining if a compound has therapeutic potential and could be developed into a drug is whether or not the compound acts on cancer cells, but does not affect healthy cells.

The UNC team tested compounds called disintegrins from copperhead snakes on mice that had breast cancer. They discovered that the treated mice did not develop additional tumors at the same rate as mice who did not get disintegrins. The treated mice also had smaller tumors compared to non-treated mice.

Mackessy stated his team is looking into disintegrins from different kinds of rattlesnakes and vipers. When discussing disintegrins in the podcast Mackessy asked: "Can this one be used for this specific cancer or that cancer to treat metastatic activity?"

Although study results from the lab are promising, more research is needed before snake venom compounds are ready to be tested in human cancer patients.

What Causes Cancer?

"Breast cancer cells, like all cancers, initially develop because of defects in the genetic material deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of a single cell," according to MedicineNet author . She says DNA defects like BRCA1 and BRAC2 mutations only account for 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers. Most breast cancers develop during adult life due to DNA damage from exposure to free radicals, radiation, chemicals, and certain toxins.

Can Cancer Be Prevented?

Dr. Stöppler states, "For the majority of women, lifestyle changes, a healthy diet, exercise, and weight reduction can also help reduce the chance of developing breast cancer as well as other cancers and illnesses." The best way to survive breast cancer and other cancers is to undergo recommended screening and detect potential cancers early.

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