Rattlesnakes and Scorpions

By Kary Vannice

While most think rattlesnakes and scorpions bring only pain and death, it might surprise you to know that their deadly venom is being touted for its curative and potentially life-saving properties.

There’s a growing body of medical research that has turned its hopes to venoms and toxins of the plant and animal world to cure many modern ailments. Advances in technology allow us to synthesize the venom from snakes, scorpions and other plants and animals in laboratories to use in treating anything from HIV to cancer to diabetes.

However, as “modern” as this approach to healing might seem, look back in ancient medical texts and you will find that this is not a new concept. Doctors and scientists as far back as 67 B.C. make reference to using snake venom to cure common maladies. Ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian cultures have been turning to the natural world for centuries to heal the sick and dying.

In ancient times, however, more often than not, it was likely that the venom administered killed more than it cured. Today, with the help of modern science, venom doses can be controlled, and even synthesized, to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks.

How does it work? Well, first one has to consider the venom itself, and what its intent would be in the natural world. Some venom is meant to paralyze its prey, some designed to break down tissue before being consumed, still others to clot the blood to stop the heart for a swift kill and in others, just the opposite is true, thinning the blood, so the victim quickly bleeds to death. This makes for a wide range of uses in the medical field.

So, it really depends on what the doctors aim to treat. In some cases, they use the venom to paralyze the growth of cancer cells to prevent them from spreading to other parts of the body. Some toxins are used to treat autoimmune diseases like lupus, MS and arthritis by shutting down pain receptor cells in the nervous system. Venom with anti-clotting properties has also been instrumental in improving blood pressure medication.

There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds of ways in which plant and animal toxins are being used (both in their natural state and synthesized) to treat and, hopefully, cure illness.

How can this possibly be? Well, it’s all in the numbers. More than 100,000 animals are known to produce venom: scorpions, spiders, bees, lizards, sea creatures such as fish and octopuses, even snails. However, perhaps the really interesting thing about venom is how much the composition of the venom varies from location to location in a single species and even between birth and adulthood. So much so that, the composition of an individual snake’s venom may even change with its diet.

So, it seems that the possibilities may be virtually endless when it comes to the curative properties of rattlesnakes and scorpions, and other unlikely saviors, all too often considered to be the harbingers of death.

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