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Turning Deadly Insect Venom into Drugs

  • George Putic

There are many secrets yet to be discovered in the world of insects, especially the deadly ones. A group of scientists in Great Britain is trying to create a ‘chemical library’ of peptides contained in the venom of some deadly insects, hoping to find a powerful drug against drug-resistant ‘superbugs’.

Many of the plastic living quarters of the 400 or so insects in the Venomtech laboratory bear the ominous skull and crossbones, meaning that their bite can be anything from painful to downright deadly.

Their venom contains hundreds of chemical components, each with a different target and effect, and that makes them interesting to medical researchers, like Venomtech managing director Steven Trim.

“Some of them we found can kill bacteria, bacteria like E.Coli and staphylococcus, so very relevant at the moment where modern medicines are failing. And we're also finding venoms that are modifying and killing cancer cells,” said Trim.

Finding new ways to kill bacteria is vital since the excessive use of antibiotics has created some 'superbugs' like tuberculosis that have grown resistant to the medicines we've historically used against them.

Animal venom has already been used in medicines, but with about 100,000 different venomous animals in the world, there is much more to discover.

Trim says Venomtech researchers are trying to isolate and catalogue those components, looking for the ones that could be turned into new drugs.

“The principle of Venomtech is separating venoms out into their component parts and targeting them to the right disease area. So this is the experience of the team in drug discovery of putting the right venom for the right drug target so we maximize the hits - and a hit is an interesting peptide that might make it to a drug,” said Trim.

The insects are well-fed in order to produce as much venom as possible, which is extracted in a way that doesn't harm the animal.

“We anaesthetize the invertebrates, just put them to sleep, it makes it safer for us because if they're immobile they can't bite us. But also it's better for the animals as well. And using a very tiny electrical stimulation, just to contract the muscle and squeeze the gland we get a small amount of venom produced,” said Trim.

Components are separated through a two-phase process called high pressure liquid chromatography that yields about a hundred proteins per venom. Each protein contains between one and five different molecules that may someday be turned into powerful new drugs.