UQ’s batty breakthrough

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Bryan Fry: Picture UQ

Venom from vampire bats and other creatures is providing the basis for medical breakthroughs following the discovery of various ways bats can prevent blood clots.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Bryan Fry is leading an international team who have discovered new types of anticoagulants and new compounds that open arteries to assist blood flow.

Fry said the venom of the common vampire bat from Central and South America has much potential for use in drug development for treatment of stroke, heart disease and other ailments.

“The key to what we’re doing is the fact that I collect the venomous animals myself,” he said.

“Whenever possible I don’t purchase them, which is quite different from most biochemists who buy the venom, and they’re essentially all working on the same stuff.

“The biological reality is that they might miss the subtlety, because when you find venomous animals in the wild there will be ecological differences and differences in diet, vegetation and prey; thus they will be useful in different ways.”

Fry said when he was studying honours, he worked with viper venom which had a compound with potent cancer-fighting properties, “about 50 times stronger” than similar compounds of different populations of the same animal.

Synthetic version of the compounds studied by Fry and his team could be created for tests in further studies and drug production.

One of the difficulties of harnessing the power of venom for medicine is the destruction of habitat for many venomous creatures.

“Sadly the weakest argument for conservation is how awesome these creatures are,” Fry said.

“If you want to convince the [Campbell] Newmans or [Tony] Abbotts about this stuff you need to point out that you could be destroying a wonder drug that could save your grandmother or make you billions.

Fry added that the development of “wonder drugs” from such sources suggests we should conserve everything.

“There’s a recent diabetes treatment that’s been derived from Komodo dragon venom,” he said.

“And Komodo dragons are far more endangered than pandas, who get all the endangered species press, though they’ve never provided a drug lead.

“Venomous animals suffer direct human persecution and it’s a very harmful thing.”

Fry said he developed a fascination with venom and toxins as a child.

“One very shaping experience I had was being strapped to a hospital bed with tubes coming out of everywhere in absolute agony from spinal meningitis, which left me with permanent deafness in my right ear,” he said.

“The ear is essentially only good for hanging sunglasses off, but it’s a daily reminder of the incredible power of natural toxins.”

SAM WORRAD