Poison? Potion? — Snake venom as heart attack treatment Poison? Potion? — Snake venom as heart attack treatment – SOMETHING ABOUT SCIENCE

Poison? Potion? — Snake venom as heart attack treatment

Snakebites can be deadly, but their poisons could be a lifesaver.

Eastern green mamba. Photo credit: H. Krisp on Wikimedia Commons

This glossy green snake is an Eastern green mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps), found throughout the eastern Africa. Don’t be fooled by its lack of flashy red stripes or other visual warnings: its bites are highly poisonous. While you would want to avoid venomous snakes like the green mamba out in the wild, they are a treasure trove for some medical researchers.

One example of the potential of snake toxins is their use in heart attack therapy.

Heart attacks are the single largest cause of deaths in the United States, with approximately one death every minute. Heart attacks commonly occur due to the plaque buildup inside the heart arteries, often resulting in blood clot formation and blockage of blood flow into the heart. The lack of oxygen reaching the heart cells kills them, a phenomenon called fibrosis. Consequently, damages on the heart tissue result in less pumping of the heart (heart failure) or even a termination of the action itself (heart attack).

So, how do the snake venoms act as both lethal and therapeutic agents? This sounds counter-intuitive.

Many snake toxicants target vital parts of our body, such as nervous system and circulatory system. For example, some venoms cause the victims to bleed to death. By tweaking the toxins, they can be used for preventing blood clots. And this is not a new concept: the medical potentials of some snakes have been sought after for decades. In the 1960’s, the venom of the Malayan pit viper was conceived as a therapeutic agent for clearing blood clots.

Eastern green mamba. Photo credit: Danleo on Wikimedia Commons

Let us return to our green, lethal friend, the Eastern green mamba. Recently, Mayo Clinic researchers developed a new drug, called cenderitide, using a part of the snake’s venom. The modified snake toxin was fused to a naturally occurring hormone that lines our blood vessels. Together, the venom-hormone hybrid improved the blood flow and the heart function, preventing heart muscle death. The new drug is currently under Phase II clinical trials for treating patients with acute heart failure. Although it would take some time before cenderitide can be approved for the market – if it makes it to there at all, as many potential drugs fail during drug development and trials –, Mayo Clinic doctors and researchers are keeping their hopes high. They believe that their “efforts to merge the best of science and the best of nature” represent “a therapeutic breakthrough in drug discovery.” It would be interesting to see the results of the current clinical trials.

Other venom-derived drugs on the market for preventing or treating minor heart attacks are available since 1998: eptifibatide (from rattelesnake venom) and tirofiban (African saw-scaled viper venom).

Snake venoms are also regarded for their potential to treat other disorders: high blood pressure, stroke (being also caused by blood clot formation, but in the brain), Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

Read more on blood clots and new treatment method here.

Read more on heart injuries and new treatment method here.

Check out amazing photos of venomous snakes by Mattias Klum in “The Bite That Heals” (National Geographic) here.

CD-NP: A Novel Engineered Dual Guanylyl Cyclase Activator with Anti-Fibrotic Actions in the Heart
Mayo creates heart drug from snake venom
Making Medicines from Poisonous Snakes

Lynn Kimlicka

I am a scientist-turned writer and editor, who loves to read and write (more than doing experiments). I have a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, with a specialization in structural biology. My interests range widely, from life sciences to pop culture and arts to music. I am bilingual in English and Japanese.

4 Responses

  1. Jett says:

    How do researchers find out which part of the venom to fuse with which hormone? Do they just randomly choose 2 parts and test on Guinea pigs?

    • Lynn K. says:

      Thank you for the technical question. They used C-terminal portion (the second half) of the venom peptide, which was isolated and shown to have good effect for heart attack treatment in previous studies. (This shorter version of the venom peptide is also better than the full-length peptide since they are more stable and less prone to degradation.) The hormone is also known for good effect through similar actions (that is, by causing blood vessels to dilate and easing blood flow). The hybrid drug was tested on rats and also in vitro in the current study (Mayo Clinic), passed Phase I clinical trial (testing on healthy people), and is currently under Phase II clinical trials (testing on small number of patients). I hope this answered your question 🙂

  1. January 28, 2013

    […] Poison? Potion? – Snake venom as heart attack treatment (somethingaboutscience.wordpress.com) […]

  2. May 30, 2015

    […] This article details how the Eastern Green Mamba’s venom can be mutated to prevent blood clot… […]

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