A witches’ brew of spooky substances—from saliva of vampire bats and Gila monsters to centipede venom and even snake oil—could be tomorrow’s cures for dangerous diseases, as scientists turn to “extreme biology” in their quest for potentially lifesaving discoveries.
In one of the most intriguing studies, stroke patients at about 60 US medical centers are being offered an experimental clot-busting drug that has been nicknamed “Draculin” because it’s derived from enzymes found in the saliva of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus).
These enzymes are a natural blood-thinner that the fanged predators inject into the mammals they bite in order to get a larger blood meal. The drug contains a purified form of the enzymes to dissolve the blood clots that cause ischemic stroke (the most common form of stroke).
The new drug, desmoteplase, is showing “great promise” in two ongoing phrase 3 clinical trials called DIAS-3 and DIAS-4, reports Philip B. Gorelick, MD, neurologist and medical director, Saint Mary’s Mercy Hospital’s Hauenstein Neuroscience Center and the Co-director of the US DIAS Study Clinical Coordinating Center.
Currently, there is only one FDA-approved clot-busting drug for ischemic stroke: tPA (tissue plasma activator), which must be given within 3 hours of onset of stroke symptoms. But very few stroke victims get to the hospital fast enough to qualify, says Dr. Gorelick.
That’s because stroke is typically not painful and patients may not recognize the symptoms—which include dizziness, sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body), confusion, and blurry vision—as a life-threatening medical emergency. Every year, more than 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke and nearly 130,000 die, according to the CDC.
Desmoteplase could extend the lifesaving treatment window up to nine hours and has shown an excellent safety profile in the clinical trials, US and German researchers reported earlier this year. The randomized, double-blind trials will ultimately include 880 patients.
“Desmoteplase seems to have less toxicity and lower risk for brain bleeding than tPA—and has a higher fibrinogen specificity, meaning that it gloms on to clots more effectively,” reports Dr. Gorelick. “Because the drug has a longer half life than tPA, it also gives patients a better chance to avoid having the clot recur.” If Draculin ultimately wins FDA-approval, it would be the first new stroke drug in nearly 20 years.
Best known for swallowing alligators and other large prey whole, pythons turn out to have very big hearts that may hold the secret to treating human cardiovascular disorders, including heart failure.
Leslie Leinwand, chief scientific officer of BioFrontiers Institute, has embraced “extreme biology,” in potentially groundbreaking research on “snake oil,” found in Burmese pythons’ blood after a meal. The huge snakes can survive with as little as one meal a year.
After chowing down, the snakes’ triglyceride levels rise as much as 50-fold and their hearts balloon in size—in a beneficial way. Furthermore, Leinwand and colleagues identified 3 fatty acids in python blood, which they call ‘snake oil,’ that also increase the size of the hearts of fasting pythons and healthy mice. The researchers reported this in a 2011 paper in Science. Since then, she says, “we did more testing and found that the changes in mouse hearts treated with these fatty acids are similar to what occurs due to regular, vigorous exercise.”
According to Leinwand, “Athletes like Michael Phelps have large, strong hearts and exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health or even reverse disease in some cases. But people with some cardiac conditions, such as heart failure, aren’t able to exercise enough to achieve this type of beneficial change.”
Instead, heart failure patients typically have large, but weak hearts that don’t pump blood very well. Leinwand and team are now seeking funding for studies to find out if “snake oil” is helpful for animals with heart disease. If so, it might ultimately lead to new treatments for people.
As investigations into "extreme biology" become more common, creepy crawlies are finding their way into more medical research and treatments:
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