Can snake venom kill cancer? UNC research shows promise

Long seen as sneaky, scary, and dangerous, the snakes of the world may soon experience a bit of a PR boost thanks to professor Stephen Mackessy of the University of Northern Colorado. Mackessy’s recent research focuses on snake venom and its potential to treat and limit the spread of certain cancers, a path that may one day save lives.

The UNC professor recently received a $50,480 bioscience grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to test purified compounds found in snake venom. His research targets compounds that could be used to develop drugs to treat breast, colon, and skin cancers, which account for more than 100,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mackessy has one of the only labs in the world that conducts research on venom from rear-fanged snakes, a group generally considered to be harmless to humans. The hope is that compounds derived from the venom of these snakes will have fewer harmful effects on healthy tissues in cancer patients, while still destroying or inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.

This is Mackessy’s second grant for venom research; he first received a $53,260 bioscience grant for the project in 2007. The latest funds will help him expand on findings from his previous research and provide support for undergraduate and graduate student assistance.

In addition to his venom research, Mackessy teaches courses in vertebrate biology and biomedical courses at UNC.

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