Critters Give us Semaglutide?

Slippery and Slimy Semaglutide Origin

venom and semaglutide

Venomous bites and stings from spiders, scorpions, snakes, lizards, and jellyfish—even caterpillars, snails, and octopuses—affect millions and cause thousands of deaths annually worldwide.

However, these animal venoms are on the brink of revolutionizing medicine, offering new treatments for conditions ranging from cancer to heart disease, and even slowing down aging.

This is not just a distant possibility. Already, a potent animal venom is behind the popular weight-loss drug semaglutide, known as Wegovy and Ozempic.

Furthermore, viper venom is the basis for ACE inhibitors, medications used by thousands in the UK for high blood pressure.

Ozempic and Wegovy generated an impressive £15 billion last year, with endorsements from celebrities like Sharon Osbourne, Boy George, and Elon Musk.

The key to these weight-loss drugs’ success lies in the venom of the Gila monster, a 2-foot-long venomous lizard native to the US.

Human fatalities from Gila monster bites are rare, but in Colorado earlier this year, Christopher Ward, 34, died from complications after being bitten by one he was keeping illegally as a pet.

A bite from this reptile can cause swelling, intense burning pain, vomiting, dizziness, a rapid heart rate, and low blood pressure. Yet, Gila venom also stimulates the pancreas, which produces insulin to regulate hunger and blood sugar.

Nearly 35 years ago, Dr. John Eng, an endocrinologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York, discovered that a chemical in the venom could serve a dual purpose—as both a poison and a hormone regulator.

Dr. Eng identified a small protein in the venom called exendin-4, similar to the human hormone GLP-1, which regulates insulin and appetite. While GLP-1 is active for about two minutes in the human body, exendin-4 remains active for hours, suggesting a long-lasting effect on blood sugar and appetite.

In 2005, Dr. Eng’s research led to the development of exenatide, the first GLP-1 mimicking drug, marketed as Byetta.

Competing pharmaceutical companies aimed to improve on exenatide, with semaglutide by Novo Nordisk emerging as a clear winner. Semaglutide, marketed as Ozempic and Wegovy, proved highly effective for treating type 2 diabetes and as a weight-loss drug.

This success has inspired scientists to explore venoms for new therapies, a field known as venomics.

With more than 220,000 venomous species, each with unique venoms, the potential for medical breakthroughs is vast.

For example, Australian octopus venom is being developed into a drug, Octpep-1, to stop melanoma tumors from growing. Dr. Maria Ikonomopoulou, head of the Translational Venomics Group at the IMDEA Food Institute in Madrid, is leading this research. Octpep-1 targets cancer cells specifically, minimizing effects on healthy cells—a significant advantage over current treatments.

The venom of the Australian funnel web spider, containing over 3,000 active chemicals, shows promise in treating heart attacks and strokes. Researchers at Queensland University found that a substance in the venom, Hi1a, could protect heart and brain cells from damage caused by a lack of oxygen, potentially reducing the impact of heart attacks and strokes.

Snake venoms have long been of interest, with the saw-scaled viper’s venom leading to the development of tirofiban, a drug that prevents blood clots. This viper, responsible for the most snakebite deaths globally, produces venom that causes internal hemorrhaging. Scientists at Temple University School of Medicine discovered that a chemical in the venom, echistatin, could prevent human blood platelets from clotting, leading to the creation of tirofiban.

Cone snail venom has led to ziconotide, a powerful painkiller used for severe chronic pain. The cone snail’s venom, capable of paralyzing fish, has been harnessed to create a drug that blocks pain signals to the brain. However, due to its potent effects, ziconotide is administered through a small pump directly into the spinal cord fluid, reserved for patients with extreme pain conditions like cancer.

Even caterpillar venom is being studied for its potential to deliver life-saving drugs directly into human cells. The venom of the asp caterpillar, known for its painful sting, contains a protein that can create openings in cells. This mechanism could allow targeted delivery of potent cancer drugs, sparing healthy cells and minimizing side effects.

Moreover, venoms from marine animals are being explored for anti-aging treatments. Dr. Ikonomopoulou’s research includes targeting “zombie cells” in the body—cells that are alive but function improperly. Venom-derived drugs could potentially rejuvenate these cells, offering new avenues for combating the effects of aging.

Venom-derived medicines represent a cutting-edge frontier in pharmaceuticals, with researchers continuously uncovering new therapeutic uses for these natural toxins. As scientists delve deeper into the complexities of venoms, the potential for groundbreaking treatments and life-saving drugs continues to expand, promising a future where nature’s deadliest substances become some of our most potent allies in medicine.