Scorpion Venom: Let’s Paint Your Brain

Imagine this.  You’re a twenty or thirty-something (or whatever age) parent and an MRI shows your child has a large mass in their brain.  Pretty terrifying right?  Probably beyond terrifying.  Now imagine that the doctors know there’s something there but that MRI can’t find it.  Successful operations depend upon being able to see those cells.  When people talk about finding a cure for cancer what they don’t realize is there is no single “cancer”.  There are many different kinds of cancer with many different potential causes.  I have a grandmother who smoked like a chimney for years and doesn’t have cancer (last I checked) and an aunt (daughter of same grandmother) who has had cancer four times and she never smokes and rarely drinks.  For them, it’s all in their genes.  For others it’s environmental.  The husband of a good friend of mine suffered for quite a long time (I was there helping with care for the last month) as a result of asbestos exposure.  It was long. Painful. And he, his wife, and I desperately wished our state had approved doctor assisted suicide at that time.  Thankfully it since has been legalized.

But I’m getting off track.  My point is this.  Cancer…all of the kinds…F&@king Sucks.  But little by little we are making advancements to help doctors and patients.  Some times from places you wouldn’t expect.

Deathstalker scorpion

Arthropods as a medical boon is nothing new.  But this is quite a doozy.  Scientists in Seattle, WA (home state represent!) have found a way to turn the venom of scorpions – in this instance, the Israeli death stalker scorpion…terrifying name – into a tool with the potential to help save lives.  This story has been floating around for a couple of days and contrary to what some claim or are passing this off as anyway, this technique does NOT cure cancer.  By using molecular techniques to modify the scorpion venom these researchers have been able to illuminate the cancer cells.  Those cells are not always visible on MRI’s and it is imperative that doctors are able to see the correct tissue.  Not only will they be able to remove the affected tissue but they will be able to avoid the normal, healthy tissue.  Not only has this been demonstrated to be useful for brain cancer, but also for breast, colon, prostate, skin, and potentially more.

At about the 8 minute mark (see full 20 min video here) he tells of an instance (in mice) where a location ‘lit up’ but visually appeared to be simply a cluster of fat cells.  Upon removal what was discovered was indeed, it was the fat cells but also a lymph channel ran through that cluster which, inside contained approximately 200 cancer cells.  This detection is about 100,000x’s more sensitive than best MRI’s.  What does this mean?  Surgeons are currently unable to identify all potential locations cancer cells could be present.  By using this fluorescent molecule they could find and remove tissue that would otherwise be missed, thus leaving potentially malignant cells to come back later.

I need to be clear that this is still in the pre-clinical stage but will be progressing to human testing in Australia soon.  This work has been conducted on mice and dogs so far.
Why does this seem to work?  Well, they don’t exactly know.  Something about the paralytic properties of this particular scorpions venom makes it amenable to this process. This question, and discoveries uncovered as a result have led these researchers to look into other products derived from similar sources.  This is of course, not new either.  Aspirin is just willow.  Not the little guy from that awesome 80’s movie.  But actually willow.  Insects and other arthropods have been used before, and will continue to be the source of who knows how many advancements.

So at your family holiday shindig, when your drunk uncle asks you what on earth a degree in Entomology is good for just tell him “curing cancer” and walk away.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

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