Ventures with Venoms

Combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput screening have been the rage in drug discovery since the late 1990s, but plant and animal sources still hold promise. In particular, venoms have proven to be rich areas for exploitation. Drugs derived from snakes, vampire bats, and Gila monsters are all nearing regulatory review and potentially, approval. But in September, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted against approval of AstraZeneca’s Exanta, a cobra venom-derived anticoagulant. These products face the same and possibly higher hurdles as other molecules when it comes to reaching the market.

One of the most successful products derived from venom was the first FDA-approved angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor, captopril. John Vane, a researcher at the Royal College of Surgeons, and a Brazilian fellow in his lab discovered that a peptide in Brazilian viper venom blocked the formation of angiotensin II. That drug went on to become Bristol-Myers Squibb’s captopril, which was approved in 1981. In 2002, worldwide sales of ACE inhibitors totaled $7.8 billion (US).

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