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Saved by the Snake?

February 28, 2003

Cobra venom is deadly stuff (about 20,000 fatalities a year globally), but it may also be a healer. A new drug derived from the venom has shown promise against multiple sclerosis (MS) and sister diseases affecting the nervous and immune systems. PhyloMed, a pharmaceutical company in Plantation, Fla., has synthesized a harmless peptide (small protein) from constituents of the snake’s venom, that acts as a kind of decoy. Attacks by immune system cells on myelin-the fatty material surrounding nerve fibers-disrupt signals between nerve cells to create characteristic MS lesions and paralysis. Neurotoxins from cobra venom paralyze nerve cells in much the same way. By binding to nerve cell receptors as a modified peptide instead of as a toxin, the venom-derived drug, called Immunokine, morphs into a therapeutic agent that can reverse MS’s debilitating effects. Clinical trials slated for this summer will target MS and adrenomyeloneuropathy (a progressive genetic disorder of the adrenal gland that results in nervous system deterioration).

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