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Venom, evolution - Medical magic bullet?

Posted on 11/10/16

The following is an excerpt from a feature by Steve Trim, Managing Director, Venomtech Ltd, which appears in the latest edition of Laboratory News:

There are many clues in nature as to pharmacological evolution long before the hominid branch of the phylogenetic tree started to sprout.

The term ‘evolutionary arms race’ eloquently describes many situations such as the development of antibacterial compounds by fungi and soil bacteria.

These organisms are fighting a tough battle for space and resources with millions of competing organisms all the time. Thus as soon as an organism starts to produce a compound that slows the growth of a competitor it develops a clear advantage in terms of natural selection and therefore this trait is retained and developed.

Venomtech MD Steve Trim talks to Laboratory News

Homo sapiens, as a species of opportunistic tool users, discovered such compounds in the late 1940’s and developed them for their own competitive advantage over pathogenic microorganisms.

New venomous species are being discovered all the time and novel venoms being characterised include those from worms, crustaceans and primates. By employing modern drug discovery techniques, we are able to uncover the wide ranging potential in venoms including tools for kinases, GPCR’s and ion channels without having to first wonder what the venoms evolved purpose is.

This is because we don’t have all the answers to explain evolution completely but piece by piece we are getting there. Sometimes a novel therapeutic indication is discovered in a venom – that then informs us of the evolutionary benefit that component brings to the venomous animal.

It is true that animal venoms have not evolved to cure our diseases, and therefore we can dismiss any thoughts of anthropocentric evolution. But by remembering the targets of venom action have also evolved in us, we can open our eyes to a wonderful world of potential tools and therapies from venomous animals.

To read the full article, click on the October digital edition of Laboratory News.

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