Our Latest Weapon Against Brain Cancer: Scorpion Venom

Scorpions: They’re ugly. They’re poisonous. They want you to get over here. And their venom is being used to create a dye that finds brain tumors and makes those things glow.

Here’s the problem with brain tumors: They’re pretty hard to spot and you can’t really just be cutting out big chunks of the brain. Brain surgery does require a certain degree of precision if the patient is going to come out of it, uh, alive.

So where do the arachnids come in? A specific type of protein called chlorotoxin made by a cuddly little guy known colloquially as the Deathstalker (really) binds to brain tumor cells, but not the actual brain cells. Why? Who the hell knows? It’s been baffling biologists for years. It is just one part of a cocktail of neurotoxins and cardiotoxins, so we’re assuming it was more luck than anything else. Either that or scorpions hate the crap out of brain cancer.

But as a tool to mark cancer cells, it’s perfect: It crosses the blood/brain barrier as if it weren’t there, binds to the cells 100% of the time and, most importantly, can be synthesized in a non-poisonous way and linked to a molecule that glows when exposed to specific types of light.

The result is what neuroscientists are calling “tumor paint”. It’s completely non-toxic so far, and it makes the tumor glow in fifteen to twenty minutes, at least in trials with mice and transplanted tumors. Human trials start next year.

In other words, it’s likely scorpions will be key in saving human lives. Thanks, hideous venomous monsters!