Snake Venom: A Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease?

snake When we hear the word “venom”, we initially associate it with the unfortunate occurrence of a close encounter with a poisonous snake, however, researchers have recently discovered that there may also be positive implications associated with the properties of snake venom.

Bothrops atrox, a member of a group of snakes known as pit vipers, is commonly found in parts of South America and may hold the key to providing treatment for one of the most devastating neurological diseases of our time. Its venom is a hemotoxin, which causes the destruction of red blood cells, and one bite from this deadly snake would put the victim in a considerable amount of pain, however, scientists have discovered an interesting feature of the venom. A particular tripeptide, a short sequence of three amino acids, has been isolated from the venom and may be capable of reducing the number of cell deaths associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease occurs when 80% of the neurons making up a part of the brain known as the substantia nigra, are destroyed. The role of these neurons is too produce dopamine, a chemical that our body needs in order to carry out basic movement. The isolated tripeptide from the venom, containing the three amino acids glutamic acid, valine, and tryptophan, may help prevent the progression of Parkinson’s disease in several ways. First, it inhibits the action of enzymes known as caspases whose main function is to initiate cell death. Secondly, it encourages neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells.

The experiment was performed using a PC12 cell line. A PC12 cell line is simply a group of cells taken from the adrenal medulla of a rat and is very useful for such an experiment because upon treatment with a solution containing Nerve Growth Factor, the cells begin to behave similar to the neurons of the human nervous system. To expose the cells to the destructive properties of Parkinson’s disease, a chemical ion called 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium (or MPP+ for short) was used to mimic the effects of the disease. MPP+ is a neurotoxin that targets dopamine producing cells by inhibiting certain mitochondrion activity. Researchers compared caspase activity, cell proliferation (in other words an increase in cell numbers), and neurite outgrowth of three different scenarios. The first scenario was PC12 cells treated with MPP+ and the isolated tripeptide, the second scenario was PC12 cells treated with MPP+ without the tripeptide present, and the third scenario was used as a control and featured neither MPP+ nor the tripeptide. In every case, the cells treated with MPP+ with the tripeptide present, proved to significantly decrease caspase activity, increased outgrowth of neurites, and increased cell proliferation compared to the cells treated with only MPP+.

Although we cannot say for sure that the sequence of amino acids found in the venom of Bothrops atrox is a definite treatment option, it does show promising results and may play an important role in the management of this disease in the near future.

Martins, N.M., Santos, N.A.G., Sartim, M.A., Cintra, A.C.O., Sampaio, S.V., & Santos, A.C. (2015). A tripeptide isolated from Bothrops atrox venom has neuroprotective and neurotrophic effects on a cellular model of Parkinson’s disease. Chemico-Biological Interactions, 235, 10-16.

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