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Deadly Venom Can Be Turned Into Disease Treatments

Aug 29, 2017

You probably know the Nietzsche quote: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

One University of South Florida researcher is studying that adage – in nature.

Craig Doupnik looks at how components of venom – the toxic secretions of  dozens of animals like spiders and snakes – can actually be bio-engineered to treat diseases.

“Venom peptides have been recognized as potential therapeutics for a variety of different disorders – in fact, several have made their way into clinical trials of currently FDA-approved drugs,” said Doupnik, an associate professor in the USF Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology.

He explained that venom peptides are strings of amino acids that can be manipulated by scientists so they can be used to target ion channels. Those are proteins that help control things like how your heart beats and how neurons fire within your brain.

As a result, a lot of the FDA-approved venom peptides are used to treat problems with those systems.

Captopril, which is a drug that was originally derived from a viper venom, is used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure," Doupnik said. "There's a peptide that’s released from the venom of a cone snail that’s used for treating chronic pain.”

Other venom peptides target seizure-related disorders and other cardiac arrhythmias.

Craig Doupnik, associate professor in the USF Morsani College of Medicine Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology.
Credit Eric Younghans / USF Health Communications

Doupnik’s research focuses on peptides from the venom of honeybees. He re-engineers those peptides so they can interact with different ion channels. His work doesn’t create specific treatments – but instead turns the venom into something a chemist can create a treatment from.

This kind of work on bee venom has been going on for more than thirty years – but has really been advanced as technology approves.

“What’s really kind of transformed the field for myself is how structural biology, in terms of how we can see these peptides and ion channels at atomic level resolution and some of the computational tools that are now available allow us to do the type of peptide engineering that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago," Doupnik said.

Doupnik also studies nano-medicines, which treat diseases at the atomic level.

“What it does is it provides computational engineers an opportunity to redesign molecules like peptides or even small molecules that can target these areas and either enhance their activity or reduce their activity, whatever the beneficial or therapeutic direction would be, and it can go in either direction, so that’s part of the trick of the trade," he said.

"It gives us what’s often referred to as ‘rational drug design’ or ‘rational peptide design,’" he added. "At least we have some rational understanding of what we’re trying to target versus just throwing a soup of chemicals onto a preparation and seeing what happens and then trying to sift through that soup to find out what the magic bullet might be or what the active ingredient might be.” 

Of course, there are ethical concerns when talking about bio-engineering. Doupnik believes sharing information with the public about this kind of work helps allay some of their fears.

“There clearly are areas of concern and I think it’s important for scientists to effectively communicate to the lay public what the goals and intentions of this type of research are," he said.

And what about perhaps the most obvious question, one that comes back to the Nietzsche quote we started with: how in the world would someone think that deadly venom could be used to actually save lives?

“Basic science is a crazy business!" Doupnik said, laughing. "It takes you down a lot of different paths and a lot of those paths are dead ends. But it never the less is where a lot of our fundamental discoveries come from and when they do lead down paths towards therapeutics and helping us better understand human disease, we see the value in it obviously.”