Professor's poison: venom of all kinds

Professor P. Gopalakrishnakone holding a container of freeze-dried venom. He has preserved snakes and spiders in his lab. In the 1980s, he would keep spiders, scorpions and snakes in the lab to extract the venom needed. Now the researchers go to the zoo to get venom or buy it freeze-dried from overseas.
PHOTO: Professor's poison: venom of all kinds

SINGAPORE - His research on toxins can help cure or mitigate diseases like chronic pain or cancer

The National University of Singapore's Professor P. Gopalakrishnakone is a world leader in animal, plant and microbial toxins and chemical poisons.

He received his doctorate from the University of London and was conferred a Doctor of Science degree by the National University of Singapore, among other academic achievements.

For his outstanding contributions, he was made Emeritus Professor by the university this month at its annual university awards. He tells The Straits Times why deadly venom can help save lives.

Q: You have been studying the venom of snakes, spiders, scorpions and even honeybees for more than 30 years. Why is this research useful?

Some of the venoms' proteins may help cure or reduce diseases like chronic pain, arthritis and cancer by reducing inflammation or preventing cartilage destruction. Some proteins may also have an anti-cancer effect because they reduce cell migration and increase cell death in experimental conditions.

Scorpions and their venom have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years in China, India and Africa. One of our projects now is to test one enzyme from a scorpion and a snake each against gastric cancer.

We've also done some preliminary studies on using honeybee venom against the cancer.

Learning more about the venom can also help scientists to develop better anti-venom or antidotes for people who are bitten or stung. Some of these venoms are very potent. A drop of sea snake venom can kill about seven adults.

Q: Has your research resulted in any commercially available products?

None has made it to the market yet. As an academician and lab-based scientist, I can go to only certain levels. Beyond that, more funding and clinical trials are needed.

For my part, I have given the research to the NUS Industry Liaison Office and they have licensed it to companies.

So far, an analgesic or painkiller compound has been licensed, while two other compounds, one anti-inflammatory and the other anti-microbial, have been tested in animals and are awaiting further development.

Q: Your team developed a new way of extracting venom from scorpions in the 1990s. How does it work?

At the time, there were several ways of collecting the venom. One was to remove the venom glands but this killed the scorpion, and thousands were needed to get enough venom for research.

Another method involved puncturing the gland with a sharp, hypodermic needle to suck the venom out. But the trauma to the gland can seriously damage the scorpion, and again it resulted in very limited venom.

So we came up with a method that uses a restraining box and electric shocks. A group of scientists before us had used forceps and electric shocks to "milk" the scorpions, but their method was unsuitable for larger species.

We developed a box with a wooden base and a plastic case. This trapped the scorpion but had an opening for the tail. We also adjusted the voltage of the shocks.

This allowed us to collect the venom and resulted in no permanent injuries to the scorpions.

Q: The Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States changed the way your research programme worked. Why?

When we started the programme in the 1980s we used to keep the spiders, scorpions and snakes in the laboratory, and we would extract the venom that we needed. We had dangerous snakes like sea snakes, cobras and rattle snakes.

But after 9/11, when safety and security were enhanced, we couldn't keep these venomous animals in a campus with so many people, so we had to give them up. The zoo took some of them.

Now if we need the venom we go to the zoo to extract it or we buy the venom freeze-dried from overseas. We have also stockpiled venom samples over the years.

Q: Scientists used to inject horses or sheep with venom, allow them to develop immunity and then bleed them and purify the blood into anti-venom to treat people. Has this changed?

Even now this is the standard technique, but it is being improved as better technology allows scientists to learn more about the venom, for example about the toxins' molecular structures. Once we know such structures, the antidotes can be created in the lab. We didn't use the horse and sheep method in Singapore because we didn't need to - we didn't have the kind of snakes that warranted it.

But we do use mice to test the effects of the venoms' proteins on rheumatoid arthritis, pain relief and gastric cancer, under very strict ethical guidelines administered by NUS.

Q: Your programme's research involves handling a lot of venom. Has anyone been hurt and how do the scientists protect themselves?

No one has been hurt. The venom is just like any other hazardous chemical.

You have to wear a mask, gloves and goggles sometimes. All students working in the laboratory have undergone theoretical tests and practical advice with a standard operating procedure.

We have a buddy system so the researchers help to protect each other and watch out for danger.

But, of course, people worry. When I got married my wife told me I had to give up my snakes, scorpions, spiders.

I did what I could. I stopped milking snakes myself and requested professional snake handlers to help me, but continued to milk scorpions, spiders and other marine creatures where there is much less danger.

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