By Dillon Thomas

GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) – A team of scientists at the University of Northern Colorado believe venom from venomous snakes could carry the cure to cancer. Dr. Stephen Mackessy, professor at UNC’s School of Biology, says studies show venoms in different snakes can attack human cancer cells in unique ways.

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To conduct the study, Mackessy’s students are given access to hundreds of snakes from around the world, all of which are stored in a secured facility on the campus of UNC. From rattlesnakes to vipers, the students are able to extract venom from each snake to study the compounds and proteins.

“These are compounds that have evolved to kill other animals, and kill things … in general, wreak havoc with living systems,” Mackessy told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “It turns out they are actually a very logical place to look for therapeutics.”

Mackessy said that when sharing his studies with the public, many times people automatically think of the dangers venomous snakes come with. However, most don’t consider the benefits the reptiles can offer to humans.

“People tend to have a visceral reaction to snakes in general,” Mackessy said.

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Snake venoms have been used since the 1950s to treat things like high blood pressure in millions of people around the globe. However, Mackessy said his lab is one of the first to research the possible uses of venom compounds to battle various forms of cancer.

“When you think about looking for a therapeutic drug, you don’t turn first to something like a venom or toxin as a source,” Mackessy said.

PhD candidate Tanner Harvey has specifically been researching viper venoms, some of which come from habitats as close as southern Arizona. Each venom, in different doses, reacts to cancers uniquely.

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“(One viper venom) kills breast cancer really quickly at low doses. And, it kills colon cancer at low doses. But, it doesn’t kill melanoma,” Harvey said.

However, other venoms strongly react to melanoma.

Killing the cancer with venom isn’t hard. It’s not killing the patient at the same time that’s the challenge. The team at UNC said their challenge is finding which compounds can be combined with other remedies to kill cancer efficiently, while preserving other life-dependent cells.

“(Finding the proper doses and mixes) is just like panning for gold,” Harvey said.

The study is still in preliminary phases. Once the team feels they have a solid answer to which venom compounds are safe to battle cancer with, the research would press on to one day potentially meet clinical studies.

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When asked if students at UNC were capable of finding the cure to cancers, Mackessy said they were well on their way toward that direction.

“There is no question they have the ability to make that kind of contribution,” Mackessy said.

While Mackessy’s team is working toward the goal of curing cancers, another takeaway from their research was also offered. Both Mackessy and Harvey hope their research will encourage the public to stop senselessly killing snakes simply out of fear. While both said they understood human instinct to fear a snake’s ability to take life, they hoped the public would ultimately come to value the snake’s ability to preserve life at the same time.

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“You never really know what is going to come from a natural source, even something like a rattlesnake,” Mackessy said. “It may be, in fact, that these dangerous animals house in their venom something that one day may be lifesaving for you, or your family members.”

Dillon Thomas