Snake Venom Holds Possible Treatment For Alzheimer’s

The fer-de-lance pit viper is one of the largest and deadliest snakes in South and Central America, delivering swift and aggressive strikes. “Fer de lance” means “iron spear,” which kind of gives you a hint of what you’re in for if you encounter one.

Throughout Asia, another snake, Russell’s viper, is feared even more. The huge volume of toxic venom inflicted with each bite kills thousands every year. I was astounded to learn that India alone suffers 46,000 deaths a year from snakebites of all species. (In the United States, the number is fewer than ten.)

Some good does come of all this horrible carnage. Scientists are studying snake venom in the hope of creating remedies for a number of diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Neurotoxins and Hemotoxins

Venom contains scores of compounds, but there are two basic kinds, neurotoxins and hemotoxins.

Neurotoxins attack the nervous system. They stop muscles from functioning, thereby causing paralysis and respiratory failure. This is how cobras kill their prey.

Hemotoxins attack the cardiovascular system to prevent blood clotting. This causes internal hemorrhaging. Rattlesnake venom kills in this way.

Although venom can be deadly, it can also be used in medicine. The groundbreaking hypertension drug Captopril launched in 1981 mimicked the venom of the poisonous Brazilian viper. Other discoveries have followed, for other diseases and using the venoms of other species. They’ve resulted in the development of usable drugs.

And new treatments are in the works. Copperhead venom – a milder venom which seldom kills humans — is being studied for its potential in healing breast cancer; the venom of the Malayan pit viper is under study to treat stroke, and cobra venom is a possible remedy for Parkinson’s disease.

New Discovery From Australia

Wayne Hodgson, a venom researcher from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia says, “There are a number of toxins found in venom that have evolved to target vital processes in the body, and they appear to have a lot more selectivity than many drugs.”

Regarding neurotoxins, he says they “might be useful for working out what is happening in the brains of people with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s.”

Recently he and his colleagues announced the discovery of a protein called K49-P1-20 in pit viper venom. This is the first time a compound has been found to enhance the activity of both of two enzymes (ECE-1 and NEP) that are able to act on beta amyloid plaques that build up in Alzheimer’s disease.

In a healthy brain these enzymes degrade amyloid beta molecules to prevent them from accumulating, but the enzymes no longer fully function in those with dementia. Pharmaceutical companies have been looking at ways to stimulate them.

The Australian team developed a synthetic version of the venom and successfully tested it on human cells in the lab. Trials in mice will follow. The researchers hope their breakthrough will help patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

New Discovery From India

Meanwhile, scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata have also been working on ways to prevent the accumulation of amyloid beta proteins.

They found that a component in the highly toxic venom of Russell’s viper, called factor V activator, can inhibit amyloid beta’s growth, destabilize already existing clumps, and protect neurons from its toxicity.

Although there are many hurdles to overcome, they write that it could be developed into a “therapeutic agent for both prevention and maintenance of the status quo in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Only time will tell if these novel therapies prove their worth in human patients.


  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4840361/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23986449