iomedical scientists collect weird stuff. In their hunt for potent new drugs, they often turn to nature, collecting vials of pollen extract and vats of peanut skins and even colonies of vaginal bacteria. Do they find treasures amid the dross? Sometimes. Here, five of the more interesting collections we’ve come across:
The cone snails hanging out in a cushy tank in a Salt Lake City lab are cannibals.
And that’s a good thing.
These predatory mollusks excrete weaponized insulin, essentially sending their victims into hypoglycemic shock. And that’s got exciting implications for diabetic research, said University of Utah researcher Helena Safavi.
The venom won’t give up its secrets easily — it’s made up of 200 distinct components — but Safavi is determined to learn more. So she and her team head to the Philippines each year on a mission to collect the little cannibals.
Buckets of dirt
Thong Le, the CEO of Lodo Therapeutics, is not yet tired of this pun: He’s out to “unearth” new drugs.
To that end, his startup (which is backed by Bill Gates) is collecting buckets of soil from all over the world. The goal: to study their native bacterial colonies for therapeutic properties. Countless factors — climate, topography, and surrounding fauna and flora — contribute to how microbes will evolve in any given swath of soil. And some of those evolutionary adaptations can prove useful. Penicillin, for instance, came from a fungus found in soil.
That’s why the team at Lodo is collecting as much dirt as it can. “The soil in Central Park in New York is different than the soil in Seattle, by the waterfront — which would then be different than the soil you might be able to pick up in Hawaii in some volcanic crater,” Le said.
Though it may sound like a sandbox, the Lodo lab is actually quite high-tech, full of gene sequencing and robotic equipment to sort and sift through the soils and isolate microorganisms for further study.
Fresh-off-the-beach horseshoe crabs
The baby-blue blood of horseshoe crabs commands a pretty penny among the pharmaceutical set: These ancient arthropods are the world’s only known factories for coagulogen, a substance that’s got an uncanny ability to detect bacterial contamination. The coagulogen extract can cost up to $15,000 per quart.
About a half million of these crabs are bled each year, so that scientists can extract amebocytes — cells which behave in a similar manner as white blood cells, in that they help defend the animal against pathogens. They’re used in what’s called a LAL test, short for limulus amebocyte lysate, which manufacturers deploy to make sure their drugs and medical devices aren’t contaminated with bacterial toxins.
Lonza, a global pharmaceutical company, gathers the crabs and bleeds them, but takes pride in returning them — very much alive — to the same beaches where they were collected.
Cups of human poop
OpenBiome is full of feces.
The Massachusetts nonprofit is the country’s richest repository for human excreta. Why? It wants to further a practice called fecal microbiota transplantation, which basically involves taking the stool of a healthy person and injecting a bit of it into the bowel of a person with some variety of gut disease.
The concept is clinically interesting, and several companies have sprung up in this space — but have yet to find a silver bullet hidden in a poop pill.
The best example of this is the floundering of Seres Therapeutics, which had grand plans of creating a hyper-sanitized pill derived from fecal bacteria. But it didn’t fare so well in clinical trials: A Phase 2 study found that it didn’t reduce risk of recurring C. difficile infection when compared to placebo.
Still, others continue to work on the concept. For instance, uBiome sequences users’ fecal samples to learn more about the composition of their microbiome. For $89, consumers can order a “Gut Kit,” which will analyze the bacterial content of their stool. If you want the deluxe package, you’ll have to shell out $399 to get a readout on the bacteria in your mouth, nose, genitals, skin, and gut.
Freeze-dried reptile venom
A vial of freeze-dried viper venom can run you up to $400, and the poisonous excretions from a Gila monster cost still more. Cobras, by contrast, are downright economical.
Why, you may ask, might you care?
Snake venom, it turns out, has long been used in the biopharma industry: ACE inhibitors, used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure, were discovered in the venom of South American pit vipers. And a lupus diagnostic test came originally from a Russell’s viper, said Kristen Wiley, co-director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo.
The zoo is a top purveyor of reptile venom, selling the toxins to drug makers and medical researchers. To get the stuff, the zoo team has created a proprietary venom collection device made of a stainless steel plinth and a glass funnel. All they have to do is coerce the snakes to bite. The venom’s then lyophilized — freeze-dried, that is — and stored for shipment.
The zoo, based in the Daniel Boone National Forest, maintains about 1,200 reptiles, including more than a hundred species of venomous snakes and lizards. In addition to venom, it sells DNA samples in the form of scale clippings.
“The fact that these weird, random animals are the source of research — that’s why biodiversity is important,” Wiley said. “We don’t know what the role of one little fish, or one little snake is — unless we research every single thing on the planet. We don’t know which we can let go extinct without having real repercussions.”