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Sting Operations

Zootoxins from venomous animals could benefit human health.

Illustrations by John Grimwade // Fall 2005
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A run-in with any of the creatures below would typically spell trouble for a human: sweating, dizziness, even death. Yet scientists are finding that the venoms, or zootoxins, of these animals contain compounds that might one day be useful in treating some of our most serious illnesses.

Poison dart frog


(Epibpedobates tricolor)

Small doses of this reptile’s skin secretions are 200 times more effective at deadening pain than morphine. However, scientists are still working to create a version without the toxic side effects.

cone snail


(Conus striatus)

Snail venom contains an extract, ziconotide, that, when injected into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord in the form of the drug Prialt, blocks calcium channels in pain receptors and halts pain messages to the brain.

sea squirt


(Ecteinascidia turbinata)

Ecteinascidin, a man-made drug that replicates the tissue of a sea squirt, halts the growth of tumors of such soft tissue cancers as bone, blood vessel, muscle and breast. In clinical trials, doctors report improvements in patients after injections totaling less than 14 mg.

Israeli scorpion


(Scorpio maurus)

The scorpion’s venom contains chlorotoxin, a protein that fights brain cancer by selectively attaching to tumor cells with minimal damage to normal ones. In tests, doctors have administered an anti-cancer drug cocktail containing chlorotoxin in the cavity surrounding the tumor.

gila monster


(Heloderma suspectum)

Exenatide, a compound in the reptile’s saliva, acts much like human pancreatic hormone, triggering insulin production when blood sugar rises too high. It’s being used in the drug Byetta to help improve blood-sugar levels (in conjunction with other drugs) in type 2 diabetes patients.

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