Natural compound in snake venom for treatment of malignant tumours

Researchers at the University of South Australia have made a major discovery using a natural compound in snake venom that shows very promising anti-cancer effects.

The compound works by activating the destruction of cells which make up the blood vessels that supply nutrients to tumours, according to Associate Professor Tony Woods from UniSA’s School of Pharmaceutical, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences.

He describes malignant tumours as abnormal living tissues with rapidly dividing cells that grow and feed off nutrients and oxygen accessed through the normal blood supply surrounding the tumours.

“US researchers have found that if the blood supply to these tumours could be prevented from forming, or be damaged once formed, the tumours would not grow,” Professor Woods said.

“While research into the use of snake venoms for treating tumours is not new and continues on a global scale, the major difference is that UniSA researchers have identified in some venoms a compound that can be used in very low concentrations. This means that the toxicity is much lower and it only affects the cells that we are interested in,” Professor Woods said.

“Conventional chemotherapy, radiotherapy and drug treatments do not distinguish between tumour cells and other healthy cells, which often results in debilitating side effects.

“We have identified a novel compound that has a damaging effect on the growth of the endothelial cells in blood vessels within tumours. These unique, special cells only occur in the lining of blood vessels. Endothelial cells must be in association with each other because they have a deeply engineered genetic function, which insists that they cohabitate. A single cell on its own will die very quickly. By knowing how to destroy these cells, we can remove the lifeline of nutrients that keeps the tumours alive,” Professor Woods said.

Working with Professor Woods is PhD candidate, Ms Emma Bateman, who has been separating the snake venoms into components and determining their effect on the cells, and Dr Michael Venning, UniSA’s specialist in snake venom research. The researchers are collaborating with an industry partner, Mr Peter Mirtschin of Venom Supplies in South Australia, who provides the Australian snake venoms for the project.

“With ten of the most venomous snakes in the world, Australia has an incredible cocktail of components in snake venoms that are very unique and can do many different things in the body,” Dr Venning said.

“Our research shows that some Australian snake venoms target the cells that surround tumours, while having less or no effect on some other cells. We expect the final compound to affect the targeted cells only. A really important factor is that our target cells are immediately accessible through the blood supply,” Professor Woods said.

“Once we’ve identified the particular compound that has the greatest effect, we won’t be collecting snakes to milk them and separate out the venom. Instead we’ll find the gene that expresses that compound, then put the gene into some bacteria and make the compound, just like human insulin is made,” Dr Venning said.

Professor Woods expects to see some significant results within a year or two that could have enormous implications for cancer treatments and real benefits for the University.

ITEK Pty Ltd, the commercialisation company of the University of South Australia, is already involved in aspects of the commercialisation of compounds that originate from snake venom.

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