New York: Data scientists at Columbia University have created the first catalogue of known animal toxins and their physiological effects on humans.
VenomKB, short for Venom Knowledge Base, summarises the results of 5,117 studies in the medical literature describing the use of venom toxins as painkillers and as treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart failure.
Drawn from an automated analysis of the literature, VenomKB documents nearly 42,723 effects on the body.
Though modern medicine makes use of only a small fraction of the toxins documented thus far, the researchers hope that the catalogue will spur the discovery of new compounds and medical treatments.
"With this list we can take stock of what we know about venoms and their therapeutic effects," said Nicholas Tatonetti, an assistant professor of biomedical informatics at Columbia.
Tatonetti and colleagues sifted through more than 5000 venom-related studies. They found 42,723 unique mentions of venoms having a specific effect on the body.
The toxic proteins and amino acids known as peptides that make up venom act on cell receptors and ion channels, controlling how cells behave.
By mimicking or altering how these toxins act on specific human cells, researchers can develop drugs that inhibit pain or treat diseases.
About a dozen major drugs have emerged from this strategy so far. For example, the widely used type 2 diabetes drug Byetta is made from the toxin exenatide found in the saliva of the venomous Gila monster lizard native to the Americas.
Another drug, bombesin, uses a toxin found in the skin of the venomous European fire-bellied toad to treat gastrointestinal disorders.
The Malayan pit viper, Gila monster, European fire-bellied toad, and cone snail account for about 18 percent of the 5,117 venom-related studies now catalogued in VenomKB.
Yet there are 10 million or more venomous species that have yet to be studied.
The study appeared the journal Scientific Data.