Snake Venom: Healing Medicine & Toxic Menace (VIDEO)

Venom in the animal kingdom often is used for hunting -- it slows down prey, changes its scent for easier tracking, and essentially digests it alive. But in the world of biomedical science, researchers are finding that venom toxins not only have the potential to harm, but also to heal.

For a better understanding of venom toxicity, I spoke with Dr. Sean Bush, an emergency physician and professor at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He studies snake bites, and he's always hunting for the best available antivenom to combat their effects.

To find out just what venom does to the human body -- and its medical potential -- watch the video above, or click the link below for a full transcript. And don't forget to sound off in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. Snakes. Spiders. Bees. Jellyfish. Scorpions. Wasps. Ants. Centipedes. Pufferfish. What do all of these animals have in common? Venom. In fact, more than 100,000 different creatures produce venom, with effects ranging from an annoying sting to full-on death. Take snakebites -- they kill over 100,000 people across the globe every year. So I sat down with Dr. Sean Bush, an emergency physician and professor at the Loma Linda School of Medicine to learn more about his work with venom.

SEAN BUSH: Different venoms will do different things. It’s very complex. So some venoms will make your blood too thin. If you drop some venom in some blood, the blood would be just like wine, you’d pour it like wine. Some of it makes your blood clot too much. Some venom makes you, it kind of dampens your neurological responses so you don’t breathe as hard or as well. And some of it causes your muscles to be, or I mean your nerves to be too excitable so you have these muscles twitching all over the place. So, and then of course there’s the swelling. Some venoms make you swell up a lot and some venoms don’t, but they can be really toxic.

CSM: Venom's different from poison because it's injected into a victim by stingers, fangs, whatever. It's made up of a bunch of different compounds called toxins. Less than a thousand of these toxins are known to medical science, but there are an estimated 20 million plus yet to discover. And the toxins found in venom can actually be used for good. There are already drugs on the market made from snake venom proteins that can treat a number of health scares. How many more are there yet to discover?

SB: I remember one time where I had a snake bite patient in one bed where I was treating him with antivenom, trying to combat the venomous effects. And then in the next bed over we had a patient with a stroke that we were using venom to break up that clot, you know caused by the stroke. So one patient we were treating for a snake bite, and another patient we were treating with a snake bite. And that’s the kind of thing about venom. So certainly it has the power to destroy, but in the right hands, it also has the power to heal.

CSM: Venom is really pharmacologically active. And it can obviously be used for good. But it also helps in the development of antivenom, an extremely important class of drugs used to combat the effects of a snakebite.

SB: Present day antivenoms are basically immunologicals. They are molecules that bind with venom to inactivate it and clear it from the body.

CSM: Injecting a patient with antivenom can be effective in preventing further damage to the body's tissues. But it can't undo the damage already done. Because one of the purposes of venom in nature is to digest a snake's prey, if it bites you, it'll start to digest your tissues too. Antivenom's not some magical drug that will undigest you. It doesn't work that way. But it can prevent you from getting sicker, and in most cases, it'll save your life.

SB: The most exciting aspect of my research is trying to figure out how to adjust to this venom molecule and treat people that get like the ultimate encounter with venom. You know they get venom injected into them and I’m trying to figure out how to save them, you know. And I have a really vested interest.

CSM: Not only did Dr. Bush grow up with a fascination of venomous snakes, even keeping them as pets, he's also been studying snake bites for 20 years. And he had a personal scare. His son was bitten by a snake when he was only two years old.

SB: My son was in the backyard and I was actually at work and my wife sees him in the backyard and he picks up a little rattlesnake by a sprinkler fountain, thinking you know, this is a snake, I’m going to get it for daddy to put in a cage, you know. And he gets bitten. And so my wife calls 911, brings him, you know he comes in by helicopter, I met him on the helipad, and we treat it with a bunch of antivenom.

CSM: His life was saved, thankfully. But I asked Dr. Bush if his son suffered any lasting effects from the bite.

SB: There was really no lasting physical effects, but he’s not so crazy about snakes now.

CSM: I don't blame him. Do you have any stories about venom, as a curse or a cure? Come on, talk nerdy to me!

See Julie Holland's excellent article in the February 2013 issue of National Geographic. It was the inspiration for this episode.

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