Woods is working with Michael Venning, a pharmacologist at the University of South Australia, and graduate student Emma Bateman. Peter Mirtschin, a toxinologist at Venom Supplies in Tanunda, South Australia, is providing the venom directly from the snakes.
Woods's group has found a compound in snake venom that disrupts endothelial cells, which line the inner surface of blood vessels. "It causes the cells to separate from one another, which kills them," Woods said. "When that happens, the function of the blood vessel is inhibited, preventing or at least interfering with blood flow to the tumor [effectively starving it of nutrients]."
Woods will not specify which snake venoms his team is studying, because the compounds have not yet been patented.
The Cure That Doesn't Kill
The advantage of these venom-derived toxins is that they seem to act only on certain types of cells.
Chemotherapy and many other drug treatments do not distinguish between tumor cells and other healthy cells, causing debilitating side effects. But natural toxins have evolved to impact very specific targets.
"We believe the cells that line blood vessels in tumors are different in subtle ways from similar cells elsewhere in the body, because they are exposed to different stimulation and chemicals," Woods said. That means toxins inhibiting tumor blood vessels may not effect surrounding healthy cells, which would theoretically leave patients using these toxins feeling better than those who go through chemotherapy.
Woods anticipates that he will begin testing the venom-derived toxin in animals within the year. Those results will reveal whether the drug is suitable for human clinical trials.
"I don't actually like snakes, they scare me to death, but I'm fascinated by their venom," Woods said. "So long as it's provided to me in nice plastic tubes, I'm very comfortable with handling it."
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