I love, love, love, re-purposing. Turning old clothes into pillows, weeds into salads, factories into apartment complexes. So imagine my delight when I saw the description for this Nature episode on how researchers are experimenting with some of the world’s deadliest toxins in order to find better treatments for human diseases. This idea has been around for a while (and almost certainly before the beginning of the biomedical research-industrial complex that frames our thinking about what constitutes scientific research and prescribed therapy…a discussion for another day). It even made it into Time in 2001.
Although there are some definite therapies that have been established using toxins, venoms, etc., scientists are discovering more every day about how animal-derived products may have amazing applications in medical therapy. This review in Bioessays provides a good perspective on where the field in snake venom pharmacotherapy research is now, and what remains to be done.
In medical school, I learned about some of the drugs that came out of experimenting with ordinarily less-than-desirable animal products. ACE inhibitors, one of the most commonly prescribed drug classes for hypertension (think Lisinopril) were originally synthesized from compounds in pit viper venom. Crazy! Another drug, Bavalirudin, is a direct thrombin inhibitor that can be used acutely to prevent clots because it is derived from hirudin, a substance in leech saliva that allows those little buggers to keep sucking.
Given this, it’s interesting to contemplate the historical rationale for using leeches as medicinal therapy. For a super history of medicine/STS nerd piece on the place of leeches in nineteenth century healing, see this brief paper from Med Hist. But indeed, nowadays, leeches are recognized as legitimate medical therapy in some practices–-check out the University of Iowa’s “Medicinal Leech Therapy on Head and Neck Patients.” (I eagerly await the day I get to write, “Apply leech q 2 hours” on a prescription pad).