Scorpions are complex creatures that both intrigue and terrify people. Zoos around the nation often build habitats utilizing scorpions to educate the general public on animal adaptations. The natural abilities of scorpions are astonishing and their ability to fluoresce under UV light allows for unique visual displays. Children are especially drawn to this glowing effect, positioning them to serve as prime animal ambassadors. Being able to care for scorpions in captivity has allowed zoological professionals and researchers to study scorpions carefully in a controlled environment. With education comes understanding, and understanding leads to more effective conservation protocols for wild populations. Yet beyond the obvious conservation value, captive care of this species has afforded the luxury of unraveling many mysteries surrounding their unique physiology.
In fact, Blaze Bioscience founder and pediatric oncologist for Seattle Children’s Hospital was inspired by his observations of scorpions and their ability to glow. Dr. Jim Olson began to question if humans could learn from this adaptation so frequently observed at local zoos and develop medical advances from the knowledge gained. His hypothesis emerged after a team of surgeons conducted a seventeen-hour surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor in a seventeen-year-old patient. The combined skill and dedication proved to be in vain as the team failed to remove all of the cancerous tissue. Unfortunately, some cancer was concealed behind healthy brain tissue. Thus, Dr. Olson sought to determine if he could make cancer glow similarly to that of a scorpion. His objective was to light up all tissue in need of removal.
He and his team discovered that a chlorotoxin found in the venom of the deathstalker scorpion could attach itself to cancerous cells in rats. This led to subsequent clinical trials with canines. The hypothesis was simple. Could he create a substance that would attach to cancerous tissue and make it fluoresce under a laser light? This would allow surgeons to spot all of the infected tissue, ensuring that it would all be eradicated. Dr. Olson worked in conjunction with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and created a synthetic version that mimicked the DNA structure of the chlorotoxin that scorpion venom possesses. They named the compound Tumor Paint BLZ-100. As the name implies, the paint actually acts as a fluorescent dye that lights up the infected cells in real time, allowing surgeons to successfully separate and remove the cancerous tissue.
The FDA recently approved a human clinical trial allowing the tumor paint to be tested with 21 brain cancer patients. Research will be conducted in both the United States and Australia. The product is injected through an IV into a patient just prior to surgery. Upon clinical injection, it circulates throughout the body and lights up any traces of cancer. The cancerous tissue reflects and glows under near-infrared light. One of the first questions that patients ask after surgery is if the medical staff was able to get it all out. Prior to this scorpion inspired application, there was no certainty to reassure patients. The goal of tumor paint is to offer confidence and ensure all of the cancer is eradicated, even hidden tissue, thus increasing one’s chance at survival.
This is not the first instance in which the captive care of misunderstood animals has led to medical breakthroughs. Gila monsters inhabit the desert regions of Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern region of the United States. If one searches local folklore, many fearful accounts of the species can be found. The days of the Wild West tell exaggerated tales of a giant lizard with toxic breath. Again, we see the theme of lack of education steering mankind towards fear and hatred. A theme that all too often leads to the demise of a species. Thanks to zoological facilities housing Gila monsters, humanity has been granted the opportunity to erase the stigma. Science has taught us through behavioral observations that these are not cold-blood killers, but often shy reptiles that only resort to biting if threatened. Furthermore, zoos have worked alongside researchers to study the venom of these lizards. Ultimately, a popular pharmaceutical drug known as Byetta was formulated based on a protein from the Gila monster’s saliva. Also known as lizard spit, this chemical is highly successfully in managing Type 2 diabetes by controlling blood sugar levels.
Aquariums are also paving the way for venomous medical breakthroughs. Marine biologists have long studied the Conus magus or cone snail. In the wild, cone snails employ pointed tongues reminiscent of hypodermic needles to inject venom into prey. Once immobilized, the cone snail will pump toxins into its victim. Fatality for prey is believed to be at 100%. While paralyzing in fish, researchers learned that it can actually reduce or cease pain transmissions within the human body. The FDA approved a medication known as Prialt that is a synthetic drug with a compound that is identical to the venom of the cone snail. This revolutionary drug is 1,000 times more powerful than morphine but does not possess any addictive side effects. Prialt is delivered directly into fluid surrounding the spinal cord by either external or implanted pumps and is approved for the treatment of chronic pain. The Prialt molecules actually inhibit the flow of calcium into cells which prevents the nerve cells from signaling pain perception to the brain. This pain pump is ideal for treating neuropathic pain often experienced by patients with cancer, AIDS, and neurological disorders. With fewer adverse side effects compared to opium-derived painkillers, and a low risk for increased tolerance, this cone snail based medication offers an effective therapeutic solution to a hard to quantify medical condition. With such immense medicinal value, researchers also warn of the need for protecting this precious natural resource. Main threats to wild populations are strongly correlated with the loss of coral reefs. Bleaching, coastal development, pollution, and destructive fishing practices are major contributing factors to the devastation of our oceans. Again, this quest all began by captive care of the species.
Modern zoos are no longer a mecca for pure entertainment. Their roles have evolved in a way that emphasize research, education, and conservation. Though captive care, we have been able to shatter the stigma attached to many of these “toxic animals” and showcase their value both in natural ecosystems and to mankind. Humans have a plethora to learn from the species that we share this planet with. Zoological facilities and aquariums offer a platform to understand the multitude of adaptations, and intricacies surrounding animal behavior. At the heart and soul of all progress is education. If not for zoos, many of these animals could not be easily observed, understood, and ultimately protected. All of these advances are direct ramifications of captive care. It took individuals banning together to look beyond the toxic stereotypes and seek edification.
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- Furman, B. L. (2012). The development of Byetta (exenatide) from the venom of the Gila monster as an anti-diabetic agent. Toxicon, 59(4), 464-471.
- Vetter, I., & J Lewis, R. (2012). Therapeutic potential of cone snail venom peptides (conopeptides). Current topics in medicinal chemistry, 12(14), 1546-1552