How a Scorpion’s Poison Could Help Heart Patients

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There are toxins, and then there are toxins. If you’ve had bypass surgery, the powerful margatoxin — courtesy of the scorpion — might one day save your life. But don’t go hunting for the little critters yet — not until science works a few more kinks out.

One of the great frustrations of heart bypass surgery is that eventually the new, clear vessels grafted onto the heart to replace old, clogged ones can clog themselves. One of the reasons, paradoxically, has to do with the body’s attempt to recover from injury. (More on 6 Common Sources of Radiation In Your Life)

Harvesting a vein from, say, the leg and moving it to the heart is a trauma for the tissue, and as the transplant takes hold, new cells are explosively produced at the graft site in an effort to speed and strengthen the healing process. The strategy — known as neointimal hyperplasia — works fine on the exterior of the vessel, but inside, it can contribute to a whole new obstruction.

Investigators already knew that a particular calcium ion channel — a tiny pore in the cell wall — known as channel Kv1.3 plays a role in the hyperplasia process, by delivering the ion that helps trigger the growth. They also knew that some compounds from plants do a good job of blocking the channel and inhibiting  cells from dividing too vigorously. But in the journal Cardiovascular Research, investigators from the University of Leeds, reported that margatoxin had the same ion-blocking effects, but was up to 100 times more powerful. (More on Another Use for Breasts: Medical Experiments).

“It’s staggeringly potent,” said biologist and lead author David Beech. “We’re talking about needing a few molecules to obtain the effect.”

That very potency will probably limit the ways the toxin could be administered. Injecting, inhaling or swallowing it could be a risky move. Instead, a margatoxin preparation might be sparingly applied to the graft itself after it has been harvested and before it’s been transplanted. Medical science always moves ahead in lurching and unexpected ways. Fixing a heart with a dose of poison clearly qualifies as one of them.

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