Pure Genius

Studying snake venom for medical cures

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A novel protein within King Cobra venom is science's latest venom-related discovery -- and it could lead to better treatment options for neurological conditions.

Snake venom -- which can be lethal to humans when bitten -- is frequently studied by scientists for the potential medicinal powers within it. Venom contains anti-clotting proteins. It was a factor in the development of a blood pressure medication. And it might even help slow cancer growth.

A novel protein within King Cobra venom is science's latest venom-related discovery -- and it could lead to better treatment options for certain neurological conditions.

Discovered in the Singapore laboratory of Dr. R. Manjunatha Kini, "haditoxin" is expected to have unique pharmacological properties, according to the "paper of the week" in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. "We know that the family of three-finger toxins display diverse biological actions on the human nervous system, cardiovascular system and blood clotting," said Dr S. Niru Nirthanan, a co-author of the paper. "Some have directly led to the development of compounds with potent analgesic and blood pressure reducing properties -- so it is likely that haditoxin in its 'conjoined twin' state or as individual components will offer us more novel insights."

Haditoxin could serve as a lead compound or template from which to design other drugs, the researchers said. Or it could serve as a "molecular probe" helping scientists study neurotransmitter receptors and their role in conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, schizophrenia, anxiety and nicotine addiction.

The venom of the King Cobra, a carnivorous snake that can grow up to 18 feet in length, has provided a wealth of opportunities for scientists. "Researchers have been studying King Cobra venom for over 50 years and yet we are still identifying new compounds," Nirthanan said. "It is a complex cocktail of biological molecules that can change composition depending on the environment, the season or even the snake's diet."

The paper's lead author, Amrita Roy, is a doctoral student in the biological sciences department at the National University of Singapore, where Kini is a professor. Nirthanan is a lecturer and researcher at Griffith University in Australia.

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure