Animals / Behavior / Environment / General / Nature / Science

Venom and ‘Spider’man – Saving lives

OK, the title may have been deceptive – but this article is indeed about spiders and Venoms – not just spider venom but those from Snakes, Arrow Poison frogs, Scorpions, wasps, bees – Scary? Yes, they are indeed creatures to be a bit wary about. I am sure you know why – they all have venoms which could cause pain and in the worst-case scenario even kill. They are used by these animals for capturing prey or in defense against attacks.

But did you know that venoms have other uses as well – No! I am not kidding. They have proved to be useful to man as well. Let me tell you a story today – A story of a beautiful sea creature called the Cone snail.

It all started one sunny afternoon as Toto was strolling along the seashore in the Philippines He was particularly fascinated by marine snails called Conus snails which were a common sight in the town market and were collected eagerly mainly due to its bright shells which tourists coveted. I am sure you might have seen these beautiful shells at some point in time.

Dr. Baldomero Olivera (fondly called Toto by all) was a Research Associate Professor at the University of Philippine’s College of Medicine and had a modest research laboratory to conduct experiments. So, as he was walking along the shores of the tropical beach, he saw a fisherman wave out to his friends on the shore, with his prize catch of the day, a beautiful cone shell. As the onlookers stood mesmerized by the beauty of the shell, the fisherman suddenly collapsed to the ground. As he was rushed to the nearby medical facility for treatment, Toto wondered what might have caused this sudden episode. A healthy, happy fisherman waving out to his friends lay unconscious in a matter of seconds, and the reason was still a mystery. As he pondered over it by replaying the scenes, he realized that the key to this puzzle lay in what was clutched in the fisherman’s hand – the cone snail.

With the research light in him thus sparked, he carefully collected a few of them and took it over to his laboratory wherewith his colleague Dr.Cruz, they ground up the soft body of the snail for further investigations. With limited access to facilities, they decided to kickstart this study with what was in their hands – basic instruments and an animal facility. They injected laboratory mice with these snail extracts and waited anxiously for a visible reaction.

Their efforts bore fruit after sitting for hours monitoring the mice and witnessing them fall from the upper part of the meshed cage. They fondly call it the ‘falling time’ and it signaled a response of the mice to the injected snail extract.

What followed was an exciting journey where Toto carried this research to the University of Utah where he currently conducts path-breaking research, and discovered one of the most valuable venoms in the world – the conotoxins. These toxins act on the nervous system of man and can cause numerous side effects including fainting, seizures, and in the case of venom from some deadly types of cone snails – even death.

Though the snail had exacted its revenge by injecting the venom into the fisherman, this proved to be a boon for mankind as Toto went on to discover many conopeptides that had immense therapeutic value. The most noteworthy being ‘Prialt’ which is to date used as a pain-killer in cases where chronic patients had become unresponsive to morphine. Prolonged administration of morphine reduces the response of the patient to it and in such cases, there is very little that doctors could do then to reduce the pain. Prialt proved to be a blessing to such patients in chronic pain.

This is just one example of a useful venom. Similarly, venom extracted from snakes, scorpions, spiders, wasps, pufferfishes, and many other animals have been used directly or indirectly in science, either in research or clinically to benefit mankind.

The next time we see these dangerous creatures, as we step back in fright, let us also remember to admire Mother Nature for her wonders. This thought makes me reword the adage ‘One man’s food is another man’s poison’ to ‘One creature’s poison is another’s medicine’.


To read more on this topic click on: (Watch this fascinating movie on how cone snails hunt and how it uses the venom to capture the prey – DON’T MISS THIS)





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