The Man Who Turns Deadly Toxins Into Medicine

Brilliance | Dec. 16, 2017

If you or a loved one is suffering from brain cancer, then Dr. Zoltan Takacs has great news: he might have found a powerful chemical compound to treat your illness. There's just one thing—it's only found in the stinger of the deathstalker scorpion, which isn't exactly known for its bedside manner. Thanks to Dr. Takacs's tireless efforts, though, medical science gets closer every day to curing the most pernicious diseases known to humanity.

In Search Of Killer Cures

The whole idea of making medicine out of deadly toxins might sound counterintuitive, but it actually makes sense when you find out how it works. Animal toxins have evolved over millions of years to target specific anatomical systems—and many of those same systems are the targets of painful and even deadly diseases. So what if you could modify those toxins so that they still seek out their targets, but change what makes them deadly into something beneficial? For example, venom has the potential to revolutionize pain relief. Venom from the fang blenny, for example, attaches to opioid receptors to make its victims sluggish, and at the same time stop them from feeling any pain. With a few modifications, this chemical could relieve pain from surgery and other conditions without carrying the risks of opioid addiction that plague many modern medicines.

But once we've worked out a way to make these deadly poisons and venoms heal instead of hurt, the next step is to collect them. That's where Dr. Takacs comes in. He was already catching snakes for fun at age six, and that interest only grew: he earned a Ph.D. in evolutionary studies on cobra venom, then went on to carry out a series of research projects on venom pharmacology. There's a reason why he calls himself a scientist-adventurer, though. You can find him capturing sea snakes off the coast of Costa Rica, or deadly mambas in Uganda. But finding and milking the most venomous snakes on the planet is just stage one of his job. Stage two is figuring out what their venom is good for.

The Toxic Librarian

The centerpiece of Dr. Takacs's career is a cataloging technology he calls Designer Toxins. Using this program, toxin pharmacologists are able to create libraries of thousands, or even millions, of different native and engineered animal toxins, organized by genomics and molecular mechanisms. The databases can then be screened on a target, such as a particular molecule that determines how a disease develops. Says Takacs, "It's like trying out a million keys at once and picking the one that opens a lock for which no one had a key before." It's already yielding promising results, particularly in the field of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. We couldn't be more excited... as long as he's happy to be the one gathering up all those snakes.

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