Spider-Venom Profits to Be Funneled Into Conservation

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Channel
August 13, 2004
Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, are "bioprospecting." In other words, they're searching for compounds in nature that are useful to science. And they're doing it in a whole new way.

"The goal is to connect the financial benefits derived from the natural world with the cost of conservation," said project director Dick Cahoon. Cahoon serves as the executive director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise, and Commercialization.

Called Venom Venture, the project's goal is to tap into profits from the medical use of spider venom. Cahoon says his broader aim, however, is to create a model with reciprocal benefits to the environment.

"The point is that any profitable discovery that comes from wildlife can then be used to fund the protection of wildlife."

The Starting Line

The first conservation-oriented bioprospecting deal was brokered by Cornell in Costa Rica. It mandated that the country's National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) in San Jose provide samples of various organisms to the Merck pharmaceutical company. If Merck discovered a useful compound, some of the profits would then funnel back to INBio for conservation.

"The concept was a big hit. At first people thought, Wow, this is really going to change conservation worldwide. Companies are going to plunk down millions of dollars to preserve national parks in order to have access to the biota [plants and animals] there," Cahoon said. "That hasn't happened, because finding a profitable compound is not easy. You have to sample a lot of things. So we needed to figure out how to make that search more efficient."

Cahoon notes that, while finding a new hit drug from natural sources is difficult, the potential payoff is immense. "Lucrative discoveries are being made in nature all the time."

For example:

• Researchers in Japan are now looking at the sweat of hippopotamuses, because it contains ultraviolet blockers and antibiotic properties.

• Ocean sponges have novel structures that engineers are using to design new optical fibers.

• The venom of Gila monsters shows promise in treating diabetes.

• The study of hearing in certain flies is helping experts make improved hearing aids.

The list goes on and on. Conservationists, however, say the challenge is to design models for bioprospecting that link such discoveries to conservation.

Pointing to the example of bats, Cahoon noted, "Bats have incredible echolocation. They don't just send out sonic impulses and realize there is a bug in a certain corner. They have the capability to send out general broadcasts of sonic energy and actually see with sound. They can holographically map an entire area, down to the smallest detail."

Scientists still don't understand how bats do it. "It's an incredibly sophisticated system," Cahoon said. "Sooner or later we are going to figure out how it works, and then the military will want that knowledge, private companies will want it. When that happens, I want bats to benefit."

Creepy Crawlies

For now, Cornell's bioprospecting venture focuses solely on spiders, because their variety of venoms holds so much promise. "There are almost 40,000 described species of spider, and possibly two or three times that not yet described," said Chuck Kristensen of Spider Pharm in Yarnell, Arizona. Spider Pharm is a company that produces venom for research use.

Almost all spiders have venom, although only a fraction of spiders are harmful to humans. "Each spider's venom can have dozens or hundreds of different components. It's an incredibly large reservoir of material we don't understand yet," Kristensen said.

Kristensen has been raising and "milking" spiders for their venom for almost 25 years. His office has 50,000 spiders representing about 50 different species. Milking their venom is labor intensive.

"To get one gram [three-hundredths of an ounce] of black widow venom, it takes 50,000 to 100,000 milkings. One milking takes one minute. So it can take us a year to get one gram," he said.

Making the Link

Spider Pharm will just be one partner in Venom Venture, which organizes a number of other organizations into a financial circle to increase the likelihood of discovering a hit drug or other useful compound.

"There will be an advisory board of scientists who create a list of spider species they think look especially promising. That board will be composed of entomologists, natural-product chemists, chemical ecologists, and other experts," Cahoon said.

A consortium of conservation and research groups around the globe will then collect the spiders. So far, partners include groups in China, Columbia, and the United States.

The spiders that researchers collect will be sent to Spider Pharm, which will be charged with keeping the spiders alive and extracting their venom. The spider toxins will then be shipped to Cornell for an initial screening.

The results of those screenings, along with the spider venom, will be distributed to various commercial companies. Those companies will then take on the bulk of the research effort.

If a compound useful to science is found, the financial benefits will flow back to the network that provided the initial samples. The money will be used for conservation.

"People have been looking to enrich themselves by taking advantage of all that nature has to offer to science throughout human history," Cahoon said. "It's time to start directing those benefits back to the natural world that provided them."

For more on this subject, watch Infested, Saturday, August 14, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel (U.S. only).

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