Mande Holford, an associate professor in chemistry at Hunter College in New York City who studies how venoms can be used to discover drugs for pain and cancer, says it goes deeper than just finding new drugs: venoms also offer the opportunity to answer big questions about evolution.
“This is a chance to achieve not just Moon shots, but Jupiter shots: how can we figure out how venom evolved and use this for the benefit of humanity?” she asks.
Scientists are now diving into the biological wealth of animal peptides to tackle a new threat: the novel coronavirus. Zachary Crook, lead protein scientist in the Jim Olson Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has started looking through databases of peptides from a range of animals in a search for peptides that could either bind to the “spike protein” on the surface of the virus, or to the ACE-2 receptor on human cells which the virus attaches to, in order to prevent it from exerting its effects. “Our eventual goal is a drug administered by a puff from an inhaler or nebuliser which can halt the infection in its tracks,” says Crook.
Despite the many applications of animal peptides, however, time to find new solutions may be running out. Thanks to the biodiversity crisis, every year thousands of species go extinct, often before we’ve even discovered them or had the chance to sequence their genome.
“The scientific evidence is pretty solid that we will hit an inflection point where it will be hard to recover this trend, and we will lose a lot of species – the next 10 years are important for us to bin that curve and try to restore, protect, and learn from the biodiversity we have on this planet,” says Holford.
Now, as always, nature can provide us both with cures as well as scourges – and there are perhaps few examples of this more potent than animal toxins.