Healthbeat: Turning Killers into Cures

June 24, 2010 (CHICAGO)

On the South Pacific waters near Fiji, Zoltan Takacs's finds what he's been looking for - a highly toxic yellow lipped banded sea krait.

The Hungarian born explorer's run-ins with dangerous snakes are no accident. This time it's a black necked spitting cobra. Takacs travels the globe, looking for creatures most of us would rather avoid. Their venom can kill but Takacs says collecting their DNA is worth the risk because the secrets behind their poisons may hold the key to curing human diseases.

"My drive is to understand what you see behind a snake you want to see into their molecules why are they venomous?" said Zoltan Takacs, Ph.D., toxinologist, University of Chicago Medical Center.

From the far corners of the world to a lab at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the scientist still meets up with dangerous subjects. He recently extracted venom from an emperor scorpion.

"Just enough in order to extract the toxin," said Dr. Takacs.

The potent chemicals have intrigued researchers for decades. They allow the animals to fend off predators or kill for a meal. Many are neuro toxins meaning they are poisons that attack the nervous system. They aim precisely at vital targets interrupting the communication between nerve cells or between nerves or muscles. The results can be paralysis, respiratory failure and more. But it's the precise way these toxins act that researchers want to understand. Unlocking the molecular secrets could allow scientists to change the molecules from destroyers to healers.

"If you can understand why toxins recognize that particular target then you can use that information to make medications. It's like a lock and a key," said Dr. Takacs.

The science is already working. There are an estimated 20 drugs now based on venoms. High blood pressure medications known as ace inhibitors are based on a modified toxin from a Brazilian viper. There's even an FDA approved pain drug based on a chemical found in snail venom.

"We look at what a toxin can do and then the pharmaceutical industry can mimic that to make a drug," said Dr. Steve Goldstein, pediatric cardiologist/biophysicist, University of Chicago Medical Center.

At the University of Chicago lab, Dr. Steve Goldstein is working along with Takacs on a state-of- the- art toxin library, where they can store information on millions of different toxins, break them down chemically and even create their own designer toxin to target specific diseases. One toxin made from three different species of scorpion is designed to target cells involved in auto immune diseases such as diabetes and MS.

"We are excited about the novelty and power of our approach," said Dr. Goldstein.

The designer toxin is years away from human trials but researches are encouraged. Meanwhile, Takacs has just been named to the 2010 class of National Geographic's emerging explorers. He's already planning his next expedition.

"We should not underestimate what nature has in terms of scientific volume," said Dr. Takacs.

Decoding the toxins can take years and there's no guarantee the formulas will translate into useful drugs. For example, researchers at Loyola University Medical Center tested a medication based on the venom of a Malaysian viper for stroke. Their research found no benefit. Despite the disappointment, those researchers insist toxin based drugs still hold promise as future medications.

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