Medical cures from the mouth of a mamba

Here, scientists suck all the dignity out of a Jameson’s mamba — a snake capable of killing a human in just a few, painful hours. The photo is part of a story in the February issue of National Geographic, exploring the potential medical uses of venom. There are also more photos. And you will meet cobra farmers.

© Mattias Klum /National Geographic


  1. So, I’m guessing you can do that to a snakes head because it still has all those bones in its skull and jaws that we mammals stuck in our ears and necks?

  2. I just read this article; it’s still on my nightstand.  Here’s the part that caused me to sit up and take notice, since some friends lost their daughter-in-law to brain cancer a little over a year ago, a cancer that began in her breasts:

    ‘Meanwhile, a neurotoxin from the venom of the giant deathstalker scorpion has been found to attach to the surface of brain cancer cells.  The overwhelming reason tumors come back is that surgeons can’t realiably distinguish good cells from bad at the growths’ edges.  Magnetic resonance imaging–the best available diagnostic tool–doesn’t detect masses smaller than about a billion cells.  This means surgeons have to find the boundaries between tumors and healthy tissue “purely by visual and textural cues,” says James Olson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Reasearch Center in Seattle, Washington.  “It’s a very imperfect science.  Glioma cells weave into normal tissue, and pieces sometimes get left behind.” 

    Doctors who treat glioma, the most common form of brain cancer, created a “molecular flashlight” by marking chlorotoxin with a near-infrared dye.  On the very first trial, Olson says, the “tumor paint,” as he calls the scorpion-derived marker, “lit up the cancer beutifully.  We were literally jumping up and down because we knew what incredible potential this had.”  The paint reveals masses with as few as 200 tumor cells.  “You can truly see the tumor almost cell by cell,” Olson says.  “This will let surgeons get more out, maybe even 100 percent.”‘

    Jane had already been through one round of brain tumor removal, followed by chemo.  When they found it again in her brain, there were even more masses and the form was more aggressive.  Pursuing the second round was going to do her some serious brain damage, if she survived.  She didn’t.  As much as I love how much more effective this dyed toxin will make surgeons in finding all the cancer cells, I’m even more jazzed in how much more effective it will make chemo, so patients don’t have to repeat the poisoning again and again.  The odds of the cancer returning, even more aggressively, are greatly reduced.

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