Using Snake Venom Protein to Fight Cancer

by AMNH on


A yellow-and-red-colored snake.
The venom of a southern copperhead, pictured above, contains a protein that may have cancer-fighting powers. Image courtesy of Flickr/J.S. Müller

While “snake oil” is shorthand for false cure, snake venom may have real healing power. At March 7’s SciCafe, From Poison to Panacea: Using Snake Venom to Combat Cancer, University of Southern California biochemistry professor Frank Markland will share his research on a protein found in snake venom and how it’s being used to combat cancer in the lab. Below, Markland answers a few questions about his research.

How are you using snake venom in cancer research?

Frank Markland: We injected contortrostatin, a protein found in southern copperhead snake venom, directly into the mammary glands of mice where human breast cancer cells had been injected two weeks earlier. Not only did the injection of this protein inhibit the growth of the tumor—it also slowed angiogenesis, the growth of blood vessels into the tumor that supply it with nutrients and allow the tumor to grow and spread. The protein also impaired the spread of the tumor to the lungs, one site where breast cancer spreads effectively.

What’s a challenge of working with snake venom?

Markland: The problem with a snake venom-derived protein is that you’d have to milk every copperhead in existence to get enough to treat one patient. This just doesn’t provide enough protein in terms of our long-term goals of clinical trials. As a solution, one of our researchers developed a method to engineer the genetic material that codes for this protein in bacteria. So now, we can grow these bacteria in large vats to make a new protein, vicrostatin, which mimics the activity of the snake venom protein.

How did you get the idea to apply snake venom to cancer research?

Markland: I was attending a meeting in Tokyo in the 1980s, and I ran into a fellow who had been working with a similar protein from snake venom when the idea dawned on me. It was fortuitous because copperheads were the species of snake I was working with at the time to isolate another protein, and since we had that particular venom on hand, we thought we would try it. And lo and behold, there it was. We and others have found that similar proteins are present in many different snakes of the viper family to a greater or lesser degree.