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Snakes, drugs and rock and roll to converge at medical symposium

Venom Week, held at ASU SkySong, explores link between venomous animals and groundbreaking drugs


Western Diamondback rattlesnake
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July 13, 2022

If you thought Shark Week was something to fear, here comes Venom Week.

In the Valley of the Sun, snakes, spiders, scorpions, Gila monsters and poisonous toads are a part of our daily reality, sometimes turning a normal walk or hike through the desert into an obstacle course. But did you know their venom has played a crucial part in some of the biggest groundbreaking drugs of the last half-century?

World experts from Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, France and across the United States will gather at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center for Venom Week VIII from July 18–22. The international medical symposium will be attended by physicians, veterinarians, pharmacists, research scientists and students to discuss the latest in venom research.

“This is the first time this symposium has been held in Phoenix metro area, and very fitting given Arizona’s pit vipers, scorpions, tarantula hawks, tarantulas and even our coral snake,” said Craig Woods, director of Infectious Disease and Biosecurity Projects in the Institute for Future Health, a joint venture between Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.

Woods, who is the organizing chair for this year’s symposium and a clinical researcher, spoke with ASU News about the what we can expect from Venom Week, what research will be discussed and what creepy crawlers are expected to be the next big breakthrough drug.

Man in white lab coat

Craig Woods

Question: Venom Week strikes me as funny in that it sounds just like Shark Week. Tell us what it's about and why ASU is hosting it this year.

Answer: Sharks are interesting, but venom is fascinating! Unlike Shark Week, Venom Week is an international medical and scientific symposium focused on venoms — from snakes, spiders, scorpions, insects, marine life and other venomous animals. This is the eighth Venom Week symposium, and it brings together physicians, pharmacists, veterinarians and researchers from around the world to discuss a variety of topics including clinical management of envenomations, research of venom toxins, and venomous animal ecology and biology. 

When I came to ASU about a year ago, I was already planning the symposium. Interestingly, and despite all of our venomous animals, Venom Week has never been held in Phoenix, so we are really excited to bring this event to ASU SkySong.  

Q: Venomous animals and modern medicine have an interesting history in that venom has led to some amazing breakthroughs. Please tell us about some developments that have occurred in the last half-century.

A: Strange to think that venom could actually help people, but we live in a strange world. Think of venom as a soup; the ingredients are toxins. Some snakes prepare very complex venom soup with multiple toxins, each toxin having very specific purposes. For example, some toxins cause blood to stop clotting while others may cause your blood pressure to drop. This raises a very interesting question: Could these same toxins be used for medical benefits such as to dissolve blood clots or to lower blood pressure? 

The answer is yes, and we now have several drugs developed from the venom of snakes, cone snails and even Arizona’s Gila monster. One of this year’s panel discussions is even called “Turning Toxins Into Treatments.” In summary, the biodiversity of venom holds great promise for developing new life-saving drugs. See, venom is not all bad, and we are just getting started in our exploring this fascinating area of drug development.

Q: What’s the latest research breakthrough or one presentation you can tell us about that will be discussed at Venom Week?

A: Ever milk a snake for venom? Well, it’s a hazardous job, but it’s how we obtain venom for research use and antivenom production. Interestingly, one presentation is on creating venom gland organoids to produce venom. Let’s say you go for a hike during Venom Week and you get envenomated by a rattlesnake and wind up at a hospital needing antivenom. Turns out, the antivenom you get will come from highly purified horse or sheep blood. Now, that’s not necessarily bad as we have been using these antivenoms for decades and they work. But producing antivenom this way is very complicated and time-consuming, which is one reason antivenoms cost so much money.  

What if we could develop antivenoms from people who have been envenomated by snakes? Are there new drugs which can be synthetically developed against venom toxins? Some presentations cover these questions, along with a lot of other cutting-edge research topics.

Q: What’s your hope for students who come to this symposium?

A: I was trained as a veterinarian but obtained my MBA at ASU, then spent over 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry in business development, technology licensing and acquisitions. Sounds odd, but my combined business and science education changed my perspective and sent me on a very different career path as a veterinarian. My hopes are students walk away from Venom Week with a different perspective, hopefully no nightmares, and perhaps inspired to consider new career paths. 

Venom Weeks’ topics are naturally geared for students at ASU’s School of Life Sciences, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and College of Health Solutions. But we even have topics in supply chain and use of artificial intelligence, and many of the presenters are entrepreneurs and work all over the world. My advice to any student including those in business, computer science, engineering, or other areas is to continually get exposure to new stuff. Trust me, educational diversity makes you more prepared going forward and a better problem solver.   

Top photo: Joey, an albino Western Diamondback rattlesnake, lives in the Life Sciences A Wing on ASU's Tempe campus, along with several other reptiles. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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