Jan 30th, 2019, 06:40 PM

Exhibition Poison

By Signi Livingstone-Peters
Highly venomous Black Mamba snake (Dendroaspis polylepis). Image Credit: Pixabay
Palais de la Decouverte brings a black mamba to Paris for reasons you may not expect.

Snake Serum. It sounds like a mix between some sort of ancient medicine and something that you might find inside a pretentious beauty bar. Sold for as much as 122 euro per 33 ml, venom is a hot commodity within the beauty industry. But, besides ageless skin and potentially fatal consequences, it is being researched for a variety of different purposes – including cancer. 

Snake venom itself is a complex mixture that contains different peptides, proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, and other bioactive molecules. These toxins are secreted by the snake in the predation or defense against threats. Palais de la Decouverte brings these explorations to Paris with their recent adoption of a black mamba and over 30 species of other highly venomous animals.

"How to kill the cancer without killing the person?"

The earliest reports of the usage of snake venom in medicine appeared in the 1930s, where there was a brief debate over the use of snake venoms for both cancer and epilepsy treatments. However, these approaches suggested using the whole venom. Apart from the apparent consequences of injecting lethal snake venom into human patients, researchers were concerned that it would be nearly impossible to standardize the use of these injections to professional levels of purity and sterility.

Despite uncertainties, the idea did not fall flat. Since then, dozens of studies on the purifications and other components of snake venom were published. A study conducted in June 2018 reports six groups of venom-derived drugs that have gotten FDA approval in the U.S. since 1981. Captopril, a medicine used to treat high blood pressure, kidney problems, and heart failure is among the most popular. It's an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) derived from highly poisonous snake venom. The drug additionally reduces the risk of death after a heart attack – a large dose of venom causes blood pressure to plummet dramatically, (often resulting in death) where a small dose of the venom decreases it in a non-fatal way. Thousands of people are living healthier by taking low doses of venom each day. 

“The active substances in the fearsome arsenal of the often deadly poisons produced by certain animals and plants are a complex blend of different chemicals which, when used under certain conditions, can become valuable medicines,” reports Palais de la Decouvert.

Venom from snakes such as this Black Mamba is under research to target particular molecular pathways in cancer cells. Image Credit: Flickr/hape662

Unlike heart attacks, high blood pressure, and kidney problems, cancer is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. One of the most important global objectives, particularly for pharmaceutical companies, is finding a cure. The US National Library of Medicine notes, “According to GLOBOCAN, there were approximately 14.1 million new cases diagnosed and 8.2 million deaths from cancer in 2012 globally. Surgery and chemotherapy are still the main strategies for cancer therapy. Target therapy, which interferes with a specific molecular target and usually causes fewer toxicities, is becoming more and more popular in chemotherapy.” Recent studies have found that the purified compounds from snake venom offer a promising solution to targeting particular molecular pathways in cancer cells.

"Poisons can work on two ways – to harm and to cure."

The entire purpose of snake venom is to defend against potential threats– often with fatal results. So that raises the question – how to kill the cancer without killing the person? Killing cancer cells is quite easy – arsenic would do the trick. The challenging part is doing so with minimal harm to the human. “So far, with few exceptions, most of our treatments exploit the fact that cancer cells grow much faster than ordinary cells, so they are directed at the mechanisms of growth,” reports Ian Musgrave to The Conversation. “Most likely, venom would work in this way, hitting fast-growing cells. If we are really lucky, a venom might target something unique to the cancer. All cancers are caused by mutations in the cells growth pathways, and our newest anti-cancer drugs target these pathways.” 

King Cobra Venom Extraction

Scientists extract venom from a King Cobra to conduct cancer research. Video Credit: JerabuDragoness

At Palais de La Decouverte, the "Poison" exhibition brings over 30 species of living, highly poisonous animals– including but not limited to snakes, poison dart frogs, lizards, and spiders. The exhibition itself is from the collections of Grupo Atrox (Spain). It has been adapted and enriched by Universcience with the help of Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle de Paris.

Most recently, the Palais adopted a Black Mamba for research, that arrived October 5th, 2018. "In addition to capitalizing on the public's fascination with poisons and the animals that produce them, this exhibition shows how poisons can work on two ways – to harm and to cure," reports le Palais. "Poisons have endless potential in scientific research, confirming the importance of protecting the natural world and its biodiversity." 

*Poison will be on exhibit until August 2019. Student rates are 7 euro. The Palais additionally offers a discounted "Happy Hour" for students between 3 pm, and 6 pm, except during weekends or school holidays.