Monsters, bloodsuckers and spiders, oh my! Scary as they are, some of the creepiest, deadliest creatures roaming the night this Halloween are also teaching medical science new ways to heal.
Consider the venom of the dreaded scorpion, for example. Dr Hector Valdivia, a physiology professor at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in the US is isolating the paralysing poisons that scorpions use to immobilize their victims. The ability of these toxins to mysteriously penetrate cell membranes - with lethal results for unfortunate victims - could end up benefiting mankind, by delivering drugs to otherwise impenetrable cells.
"If I have a piece of a drug that cannot penetrate the cell, I could couple it to the toxin so the toxin serves as a vehicle to carry cargo into the cell," Valdivia explained. The concept remains in the development phase, but Valdivia's lab has already figured out how to synthesize the toxins so they don't have to keep milking the arachnids for venom.
Spider venom to kill tumours
Spider venom is also being looked at to kill off tumours, said Robert Root-Bernstein, professor of physiology at Michigan State University and co-author of Honey, Mud, Maggots and Other Medical Marvels. And he noted that spider webs, when placed on actual wounds, can aid blood clotting.
Meanwhile, scientists are discovering that what's good for vampires might also be good for stroke patients. Efforts are underway to see if clot-resisting saliva from vampire bats - which live off the blood of animals - can help prevent brain cell death in stroke patients. Desmoteplase, a drug inspired by an enzyme in vampire bat saliva, is being tested in a global clinical trial as a blood thinner.
Even monsters have offered their services to pharmaceutical science - well, the desert-dwelling lizards known as Gila monsters. Byetta (exenatide), a diet drug which in one trial helped overweight people with diabetes shed an average of 5kg over three years, was based on the spit of the venomous striped lizard.
Other slithery, slimy creatures have their good side. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are probing whether ingesting parasitic "helminth" whipworm eggs (in capsule form) can combat the flare-ups associated with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. It sounds yucky, but scientists reckon that letting the eggs hatch in the intestine could trigger a favourable immune response in patients. The worms normally live in pigs.
Maggots and leeches
Next up: maggots and leeches. Both have been approved as bona fide "medical devices" by the US Food and Drug Administration to clean up wounds, although they're called "medical maggots" and "medicinal leeches" in scientific circles. In 2005, an FDA panel voted to classify both organisms as "non-exempt, Class II medical devices with special controls." In the case of the maggots, the special "controls" referred to instructions to prevent "escape of adult flies," and, in the case of leeches, a guidance document stating that "discarded leeches should be treated as biohazard waste due [to] their contact with blood."
Halloween isn't all monstrous, of course. On "treats" side of the holiday, keep in mind that the sugar in your candy bag has been used for millennia as an antibiotic.
Honey vs bacteria
"Huge clinical trials show that putting honey or sugar on antibiotic-resistant infections of the skin will often kill the bacteria," Root-Bernstein said. "This is one of the oldest treatments that exists. The reason it works is the same reason that sugar protects jelly from going bad. Basically, sugar is a preservative is the simple explanation. The more technical explanation is 'osmotic pressure.' Bacteria and fungi can't grow on something that has a high sugar content because the sugar sucks all the water out of the cell."
And the cellophane your candy is wrapped in? Early dialysis used similar cellophane tubes. "Every time someone unwraps a piece of candy, they're probably unwrapping a piece of medical history," Root-Bernstein said. - (Amanda Gardner/HealthDay News, November 2009)