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A Laboratory Turns Deadly Insect Venom into Medicine

To most of us, medicine comes from a drugstore. But originally, much of the medicine developed in the last century came from natural sources: plants, bacteria and fungi.

Now, a group of scientists in Great Britain are hoping to develop a medicine from poisonous insects. They are researching whether the deadly venom of some insects can work against bacteria that make people sick.

Venomtech laboratory

About 400 insects live in plastic containers in the Venomtech laboratory. Each container has an image of a skull and crossbones. The images warn that a bite from the insects inside can be anything from painful to downright deadly.

The venom from these insects contains hundreds of chemical components. Each component has a different target and effect.

Medical researchers, such as Venomtech managing director Steven Trim, separate the venom into its component parts. Then they create a library of those components, looking for the ones that could be turned into new drugs.

“Some of them we found can kill bacteria, bacteria like E.Coli and staphylococcus, so they're very relevant at the moment where modern medicines (are) failing. And we're also finding venoms that are modifying and killing cancer cells.”

Finding new ways to kill bacteria is important to researchers. One reason is because people have used antibiotics so much that some bacteria can now resist it.

For example, tuberculosis used to be curable with antibiotics. Now it is not.

How do they get the venom out?

To get as much venom as possible, researchers feed the insects well, then put them to sleep temporarily.

Steven Trim of Venomtech says researchers anaesthetize the invertebrates to make removing the venom safer. After all, an immobile insect cannot bite.

Anaesthetizing the insect is better for the animals as well, says Trim.

Researchers then electrically stimulate the insect to contract the muscle and squeeze the gland. The pressure produces a small amount of venom.

Researchers separate the venom into hundreds of proteins. Each protein contains between one and five different molecules. Someday, those tiny molecules might be turned into powerful new drugs.

I’m Marsha James.

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Marsha James adapted this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

venom – n. poison that is produced by an animal and used to kill or injure another animal

drug-resistant n. the reduction in effectiveness of a drug

downrightadv. completely or totally

maximizev. to increase something as much as possible

peptide n. a compound containing two or more amino acids in which the carboxyl group of one acid is linked to the group of other

anaesthetize v. – deprive of feeling or awareness

immobile adj. unable to move

gland n. an organ in the body that makes a substance which is used by the body

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