Scientists Experiment with Snail Venom to Treat Cancer

The cone snail’s lethal venom could have medical applications ranging from treating Parkinson’s to therapies for cancer.

Cone Snail / Image: Alex Holt/National Institute of Standards and Technology
Cone Snail / Image: Alex Holt/National Institute of Standards and Technology

When you think of snails, chances are you associate them with escargot and not cancer treatment. That’s because you’re not Frank Marí, a biochemist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. According to a recent article from The Washington Post, Marí and his team are coaxing venom from cone snails to study receptors in the human immune system in hopes of curing diseases like Parkinson’s, tuberculosis, and even cancer.

There are dozens of medical applications for cone snail venom; Marí and his colleagues have used a venom enzyme to break cell walls for drug delivery, and one of his friends discovered a form of cone snail insulin more powerful than that of humans. In Marí’s latest paper, he and his team used a snail venom compound called “conotoxin” as a molecular probe that disables certain cell receptors. The toxin showed that the receptors are used to promote an inflammatory reaction, useful information for scientists seeking treatments for diseases involving those receptors.

Marí says, “The application is not just to develop medicine, but to outline the mechanism that allows us to develop an understanding that will eventually have medicinal purposes.”

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