Could Snake Venom Help with the Opioid Problem?

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Yellow jar with label with a drawing of black snake.

Could we one day have a safer pain reliever made from snake venom? Scientists have been studying venom from snakes and spiders (like tarantulas) that might lead to pain relievers that are more effective or safer than prescription opioids. And there are plenty of venoms left to study: more than 20 million of them, from over 150,000 animal species.  

Wait a minute. Snakes and spiders use their venom to numb or kill their prey. How can venom help the body?

The toxins (poisons) in venom damage several of the body’s essential functions, like the circulatory system (which moves blood through the body) and nervous system (the body’s “electrical wiring”). Researchers wondered: Since venom affects those bodily systems, could certain chemicals in venom be used to treat some problems or health conditions that affect those same systems? This approach to developing drugs is called “toxineering.”

Toxineering has already produced some important medicines. The first one to get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), back in 1981, is still used to reduce high blood pressure. That medicine was developed from the venom of a snake, the Brazilian pit viper. Since then, the FDA has approved other venom-derived drugs to treat various heart problems.

Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll go to the doctor, and poisonous venom (or, more accurately, medicine made from it) will improve your health—or even save your life.

Why are opioids so addictive? Find out here.

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