When I attended university, I used to volunteer in the venomous animal lab. Among the many things I got to do, I helped milk a variety of venomous snakes including several species of rattlesnakes and cobras. The venom was used for the production of anti-venom and for medical research, as there are many different properties found in venom, some which have been medically useful.
In addition to milking snakes for their venom, I spent a lot of time milking scorpions for their venom. I’ve had many people ask me how do you milk a scorpion and I jokingly respond with a very short stool. Actually, the proper way is to gently pick up the scorpion by the tail with a pair of forceps, but you have to make sure you don’t squeeze to tightly and injure the scorpion. Then you place a very small hollow glass tube called a pipette up to the tip of the scorpion’s stinger and then touch the venom sac, located just below the stinger, against a very low voltage current. The electricity causes the venom sac to contract, expelling the venom which is then collected in the pipette.
The amount of venom is small, since the scorpions are small. We concentrated on local scorpions, mostly the larger hairy scorpion and the smaller and more deadly bark scorpion. It takes many scorpions to produce a gram of venom, which is then used for anti-venom and medical research. During my time there, I estimate that I milked at least half a million scorpions and never got stung while doing it.
That’s why the latest news on the use of scorpion venom in targeting cancer cells was so interesting to me.
Researchers discovered a compound in the venom of the death stalker scorpion that when combined with a dye that glows and then injected into a patient with cancer, it adheres to just the cancer cells. This allows doctors to use very treatments, including surgery, against the cancer cells or tumor without injuring or harming normal healthy tissue.
Researchers involved in the discovery said:
“It really has the potential to very much change how we do care.”
Dr. Rowena Schwartz, a doctor at the University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy commented on the new discovery:
“The excitement of it is that it’s a way to identify tumor tissue separate from healthy tissue.”
“I think it’s because a chemo toxin was identified was bound to the cancer tissue, and not to normal cells.”
“To take a venom from a scorpion and synthetically make it without the poison and then hook it to something that can be florescent under a laser light, means that then you can visualize it.”
“As we learn more about cancer cells and the difference between non-cancer cells, it gives you potential targets for treatment and in this case targets for visualization. And I think that’s one of the most exciting things that’s going on in cancer.”
The new targeting technique is still being tested, but if the tests continue to show the results they have so far, it could make a huge impact in cancer treatment. What’s more, it could save hundreds of millions of dollars in medical bills and healthcare costs.
One of the major drawbacks in treating cancer these days is the harming or destruction of surrounding healthy tissue. Quite often, much of the healing of the damaged healthy tissue adds to the lengthy recovery process and worse. The loss of healthy normal tissue can result in other medical complications.
If doctors could clearly see just the cancer cells and be able to differentiate them from surrounding healthy tissue, it would make removing just the cancer much easier and less invasive.
As Republicans in Congress try to come up with a workable and affordable replacement for Obamacare, the use of scorpion venom in marking of cancer cells, could drastically reduce the overall cost of a nationalized healthcare program, which in the long run, could save taxpayers millions of dollars.