I woke up at 8 a.m. on the second day feeling surreal after tracking sea snakes the day before. I had to prepare my mind for the magic of what Zoltan does: extracting blood and venom from a snake so he and fellow scientists can investigate it for treatments to cure diseases. Before the day began, Zoltan sat me down and reviewed the safety procedures. Then I asked Zoltan to explain a few things that I’ll share with you now:

1. There are presently 20 venom-derived drugs. Most of them come from snake venom. Others are derived from marine snail venom and lizard venom. Animal venoms are one of the most successful sources for medication.

2. As I mentioned earlier, prescribed drugs developed from venomous creatures are used to fight against heart attacks, heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and they alleviate cancer and HIV pain. Venom drug leads currently in clinical trials are for thrombosis and autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

3. How does this process go from raw venom to treatment?

a. A tissue sample is taken from the snake that contains the DNA or RNA code. This DNA / RNA contains the blueprint for all toxins in the venom.

b. Scientists then must “sequence”—or decode—the DNA / RNA to get the blueprint of the toxin. This process can be a massive undertaking because one venom can have many hundreds of toxins.

c. Once the blueprint is decoded, the scientist recreates the same exact toxin in bacteria by genetic engineering, so it can be studied and tested.

d. Then the toxin is tested by an endless variety of techniques (e.g. applying it to molecules, cells, tissues, and animals to research the effects). This typically takes many years and lots of collaboration among different specialties.

e. If the effect is promising, they try to perfect it by tweaking the toxin further, which means modifying or mutating the toxin DNA until you get the most favorable result.

f. When you reach the desired effect, you also have to identify all of the side effects they don’t want this drug to have.

g. Next comes the animal and human clinical trials, which take a few more years.

h. In the end, it could take 10-20 years to develop a venom-derived drug that is FDA approved.

The reward is enormous: In the US, the fourth most-prescribed medicine originates from snake venoms. A top diabetes drug comes from lizard venom. Drugs of choice for the worst types of heart attack come from snake venom. Below is an example of someone who suffered a heart attack with a blocked artery. The artery was unclogged, thanks in part to medication derived from snake venom.

Photo by Zoltan Takacs

 
As Zoltan described this process, I immediately thought of the steps in the scientific method I followed as a child for my science projects. I truly wish I’d had Zoltan as a teacher. That would have made science a lot more interesting for me when I was young!

OK, so I couldn’t stall Zoltan any longer. It was time for me to assist him with drawing blood. Zoltan cautioned me that this is a very delicate process. I asked why. He said that the blood is drawn directly from the heart of the snake. At this moment, I realized how careful I must be in order to draw blood from the heart. This is the procedure recommended by veterinarians and research scientists. Make an inaccurate move and you can harm the snake.

It’s so funny how anything cool in STEM requires precision, from flying around the world to drawing blood from a venomous sea snake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! We successfully drew the blood from the snake’s heart, but I don’t think I took a breath the entire time. What a rush! I felt like I had a close friendship with the sea snake I had worked so hard to track down. After this amazing experience, we released the sea snake back into its natural habitat.

Photo by Zoltan Takacs

 
In the world, there are approximately 150,000 venomous species, including snakes, insects, and spiders. The vast majority of these never been studied for medicines. Yet sea snakes, along with other marine creatures, are fighting for survival. Right next door to Palau, in Southeast Asia, almost every form of marine life is captured and eaten by humans. In the case of venomous creatures, this means we are destroying and eliminating potential life-saving medications. At least there is one place where they are safe, and that is Palau, which is a northeastern limit where the sea snakes will travel. Here, people have both high regard and fear of sea snakes, so they seem to be safe from capture by the local inhabitants.

Weird But True Story
As we were driving to the tallest point on the island, our cab driver told us a story that was hard to believe. Zoltan was amazed. This cab driver’s grandmother and her friends would fish for eels much differently than we do today. Back then, they let the sea snake catch the eel in the ocean and wait until the snake came ashore and fell asleep. According to locals, the sea snake snores when its stomach is full. Natives would carefully listen for them snoring under rocks, catch the snake, and keep hitting it until it regurgitated the eel it just swallowed.

As you read this, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was. How were the natives able to eat a creature that was bitten and had venom in it? Zoltan explained that in order for venom to be harmful, it must be injected into your blood stream; normally it’s not harmful if eaten. On the contrary, poison from frogs, plants, and other such sources are typically dangerous when ingested. Because the natives ate the eel killed by the venom that went through the digestive system, it did not pose any harm to the natives. Absolutely Crazy!!! Do not try at home!

Snakes are one of the most successful groups of vertebrates. They’re an essential component of the environment and have a proven track record of treating deadly diseases. These creatures are true lifesavers. I have a newfound love for them!

Photo by Zoltan Takacs

 
To learn more about Zoltan and his amazing work, visit: www.ZoltanTakacs.com