By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Three boys with goals of becoming “Spider-Man” provoked a spider to bite them, Telemundo reported. The young men, who live in Bolivia, were treated in a children’s hospital in La Paz for pain, sweating, and tremors. Venoms have a variety of effects on people.
According to Telemundo, three boys in rural Bolivia provoked a black widow spider into biting them to see if they would obtain superpowers like the Marvel Comics character Spider-Man. “The children [who are 12, 10, and 8 years old] went out to graze goats while their mother went for firewood for the kitchen on May 14 in Chayanta, a town in the Andean region of Potosi,” the article said (translation from Spanish by Google Translate). “The spider was a black widow and the boys decided to ‘experiment’ to see if the sting gives magical powers, so the older one was bitten ‘by stimulating it with a stick,’ [followed by] the other and finally the youngest, helped by the other two.”
While animal venom doesn’t turn people into superheroes, it produces a wide variety of effects on the bodies of its prey.
The Chemistry of Venom
Venom is a mysterious substance. One of the biggest mysteries is how an animal can make and harbor venom without getting sick itself.
“Venoms from predatory animals are not only very potent; they are far more complex at the molecular level than most poisons are,” said Dr. Ron B. Davis, Jr., Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry at Georgetown University. “In short, venoms are proteins; they are made of the same amino acids as the rest of the proteins in our bodies. Once their job is done and the predator starts to chow down, the predator’s digestive tract treats that venom like any other protein, breaking it down into amino acids for nutrition, and this renders it non-lethal.”
Dr. Davis said that venoms often cause paralysis in muscles. This isn’t an immediately fatal problem if the muscles in question are in your foot, but if it happens in other parts of the body, it’s a different—and deadly—story.
“The venom is injected into the prey, bypassing [its] digestive tract altogether and surviving the transfer intact to paralyze the muscles of the prey, in some cases leaving it defenseless to further attack—and in other cases killing it outright by stopping its heart or lungs from functioning,” he said.
The Surprising Upside of Venom
No human or animal wants to find itself on the receiving end of an attack by a venomous predator, but when properly honed, venom has some unexpected potentials for humanity.
“These molecular assassins are so potent and lethal to human cells that researchers want to find ways to harness that lethality to kill cancer,” Dr. Davis said. “You see, cancer cells often grow faster than ordinary cells, and they have a greater need for resources. The increased need gives some cancers a tendency to overproduce certain proteins that regulate their energy.”
Some species of scorpion have venom that carries an amino acid peptide called chlorotoxin. Dr. Davis said that cancer cells may be more susceptible to chlorotoxin than healthy cells. However, the inherent danger of this venom means that targeting cancer cells would have to be very precise, so researchers are developing special delivery vehicles called nanoparticles to get them where they’re going.
“Made of iron oxide and just a few nanometers across, these special particles have a remarkable tendency to accumulate in cancer cells preferentially when introduced to a patient’s body,” Dr. Davis said. “Combine that with the fact that they can be chemically tethered to a handful of chlorotoxin molecules, and you have a potential strategy for targeted delivery of chlorotoxin to cancer cells.
“As the nanoparticles accumulate around tumors, their payload of scorpion venom does its work on the overexpressed potassium channels on the cancer cells, in theory, increasing the efficacy of the toxin on the cancer while minimizing its effect on healthy cells.”
Venoms are often intimidating and lethal agents of paralysis that predatory animals use to secure their places in the food chain. They also offer surprising potential to treat cancers. Just don’t expect to become a web-slinging, Spandex-clad vigilante after being injected.
Dr. Ron B. Davis, Jr. contributed to this article. Dr. Davis is an Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry at Georgetown University, where he has been teaching introductory organic chemistry laboratories since 2008. He earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University.