Scientists are extracting the venom of scorpions and spiders in the hunt for valuable molecules that could help in the battle against drug-resistant superbugs. Matthew Stock reports.
It's feeding time at this lab in south-east England. About 400 invertebrates are housed here, including about 70 species of tarantula and 30 species of scorpion. Their venom can be fatal to humans. But the scientists here say it could be a lifeline in the battle against superbugs. After temporarily putting them to sleep, the team from Venomtech can collect a tiny sample. (SOUNDBITE) (English) STEVEN TRIM, MANAGING DIRECTOR, VENOMTECH, SAYING: "And using a very tiny electrical stimulation, just to contract the muscle and squeeze the gland we get a small amount of venom produced. This is measured in micro-litres, which is a thousandth of a millilitre.... But in that small amount there's a lot of interesting peptides." This small droplet of venom could hold the key for a new generation of drugs. But first it needs to be be broken down. (SOUNDBITE) (English) STEVEN TRIM, MANAGING DIRECTOR, VENOMTECH, SAYING: "Venom's like crude oil. It contains several hundred components. And so we separate that out in a two phase process called high pressure liquid chromatography. And that gives us typically about a hundred fractions per venom, and each one of those fractions may contain 1 to 5 individual peptides." It's these molecules that make these creatures' venom so successful at targeting and attacking their prey by evading the body's defences. This is the same as what doctors hope an injected drug will do. (SOUNDBITE) (English) STEVEN TRIM, MANAGING DIRECTOR, VENOMTECH, SAYING: "Some of them we found can kill bacteria, bacteria like E.Coli and Staphylococcus, so very relevant at the moment where modern medicines are failing. And we're also finding venoms that are modifying and killing cancer cells." Venomtech says they are now working with at least one major pharmaceutical company to turn their discoveries into viable new drugs. Experts warn of the looming crisis of multi-drug resistant infections, largely caused by over-prescription. Scientists around the world are scrambling to find new drugs. But the team here is hopeful these super bugs could offer a solution.