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Scientists Just Discovered a Bunch of Medical Uses for Scorpion Venom

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By Elias Marat

Researchers in Mexico and the U.S. have made the stunning discovery that venom from a scorpion native to Eastern Mexico is highly effective at killing deadly bacteria, including those that cause staph infections and tuberculosis (TB).

Thousands of animal species ranging from spiders to wasps, snakes, fish and frogs have venom that can cause mild irritations, induce hallucinations, or even kill adult humans. However, these latest findings highlight the potent ability of toxins from venomous creatures such as snakes, scorpions and snails to provide natural antidotes to bacterial infections.

A team of scientists from California’s Stanford University and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who published their findings this week, found that not only does the Diplocentrus melici scorpion’s venom not cause harm to human tissue, but its two key color-changing compounds can also be synthesized in a lab and used to destroy staphylococcus and drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria.

Lourival Possani, a professor of molecular medicine at UNAM’s Institute of Biotechnology, has spent 45 years searching for the identification of compounds with pharmacological potential within scorpion poison. His group has previously discovered potent natural antibiotics, insecticides and antimalarial agents in the arachnid’s venom.

However, the doctor told La Jornada that it is exceedingly difficult to find the insects, which can only be found during the rainy season. During the dry season, the scorpions burrow underground. The simple act by Possani’s team of capturing a few specimens of D. melici was difficult enough, let alone extracting and identifying the key compounds in the scorpion’s venom.

To extract or “milk” the venom from the scorpions, researchers applied a mild electric stimulus to their tails. After doing so, the venom turned into a brownish color once exposed to air.

Richard Zare, a senior study author who led the group of chemists from Stanford and has a reputation for identifying and synthesizing chemicals, explained:

We only had 0.5 microliters of the venom to work with. This is 10 times less than the amount of blood a mosquito will suck in a single serving.

After performing a number of highly sensitive tests, the research teams identified the two chemical compounds of 1,4-benzoquinone as those responsible for the change in color. Each of the compounds turned a different color, with one turning blue and the other turning red the moment they came in contact with air.

With the compounds’ structures confirmed, the Stanford team was able to begin recreating synthetic versions in their lab. Zare said:

By volume, scorpion venom is one of the most precious materials in the world. It would costs $39 million to produce a gallon of it.

If you depended only on scorpions to produce it, nobody could afford it, so it’s important to identify what the critical ingredients are and be able to synthesize them.

A batch of the synthesized benzoquinones was then shipped to Mexico City, where it was tested by pathologist Rogelio Hernandez-Pando of the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Health Sciences and Nutrition.

In lab tests, Hernández-Pando’s group discovered that the red compound was a potent killer of the highly infectious staphylococcus bacteria, while the blue compound was lethal to normal and multi-drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis-causing bacteria.

Zare explained:

We found that these compounds killed bacteria, but then the question became ‘Will it kill you, too?’ … And the answer is no: Hernández-Pando’s group showed that the blue compound kills tuberculosis bacteria but leaves the lining of the lungs in mice intact.

While plenty of work still needs to be done before we see drugs that can effectively treat TB and staph infections, the results of this work—published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—show the potential of using the D. melici scorpion for good.

By Elias Marat | Creative Commons |

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