A lab in New Haven
Held biotech mavens
Who looked at the functions of nerves
Along came a spider
With venom inside her
So they looked at purpose it serves
See, nature is cunning
And spiders are stunning—
No, really; their bites stun their prey
So maybe a toxin
Some synapse, just locks in
And shuts down the nerve in this way
They’ve explored bites and stings
Of such poisonous things
But they wished they could search even more
The answer’s appearing
Cos, now, toxineering
Yields larger amounts to explore
Now, one such advance
From a kind of tarant-
ula (called the Peruvian Green),
The authors explain
Could relieve chronic pain:
Toxineering pays off, we have seen
But the true coolest thing
(and this makes my heart sing)
Is that, someday, I’m likely to hear
From my neighbor (say, Bob)
When I ask him his job,
He replies “I’m a nerve toxineer”.
Venoms contain many active toxins, not all of them suitable for use in humans. And once a potentially effective toxin is identified, researchers must run further tests to determine which neural pathways it might affect.
But now researchers at Yale University say they have sped up the process by using DNA cloning technology to build large libraries of spider venoms. This makes it easier to test the impact of a broad range of toxins on a particular neural pathway. They refer to the process as toxineering.
Three cool things stand out to me:
Third coolest: Sure, we’ve seen it before, but the whole idea of using naturally occurring venoms as a laboratory for medicine is just plain cool. The paper the Times refers to reviews quite a few examples, only some of which I was familiar with–cone snail toxins, for instance, along with scorpion venom and literally hundreds of different sorts of spider venoms. Evolution did the tinkering to invent the stuff, and all we need to do is discover it before we render it extinct (we are our own worst enemies, sometimes). In this case, a promising treatment for chronic pain and inflammation was found in the venom of Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula. Yeah, I know–and this is only the third coolest thing.
Second coolest: But you see, naturally occurring venoms are messy–there may be a great many different toxic peptides in one spider’s venom, in varying amounts, and it might be very difficult to see the effects of a low-concentration peptide when it is masked by a much more abundant one. The new research clones individual toxins, such that mixtures of equal molarity can be tested. The specific peptide here was found by systematically exploring a toxin library of around 100 cloned toxic peptides. The procedure can be scaled, too–it doesn’t depend on farming a whole bunch of spiders. So, yeah, there are people who can casually drop into conversation the fact that they happen to have a library of spider toxins that they can mix to order. I expect this from Bond villains, or from Sherlock Holmes, but not in real life. Very cool. But only second coolest.
Coolest: They call the process “Toxineering”. Which, to me, juxtaposes thoughts of SPECTRE and the Mickey Mouse Club. “Toxineer roll call!” I picture lab headgear with, instead of Mousketeer ears, oversized tarantula eyes. Annette Funicello with extra legs. Theme parks located in hollowed out volcanoes. Souvenir lab coats.
But I am easily amused.