STRANGE BUT TRUE- Toxin goodness: There's healing in many animal venoms


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. There are plenty of venomous animal species out there, roughly 100,000 or more, from the rattlesnake to the scorpion to the platypus. Their toxins can paralyze muscles, make blood pressure plummet, or induce seizures by scrambling brain signals. Now, can you name any animal venoms possessing medicinal powers as well? –B.L.Zebub

A. Researchers in the burgeoning field of "venomics" talk of wonder drug venoms. After all, a perfect venom toxin works with lightning speed, remains stable for a long time, and strikes its mark with surgical exactitude– attributes drug makers dream about, says Laura Sanders in Science News. 

"If you know anybody taking high blood pressure medication, odds are they take compounds called ACE inhibitors," based on a modified toxin from a Brazilian viper, she says. Then there's a medication based on cone snail venom that alleviates types of chronic pain even better than morphine. And a sea anemone toxin has potential as a therapy for autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, seeming to halt rogue immune cells that attack human body tissues.

Says researcher George Miljanich, "A venom can be an 'amazing soup,' with great potential as a source of new medicine."

Q. Pilots "flying by the seat of their pants" is one thing, but "flying by the seat of their (weighty) tanks" is quite another. When does this one come up? –S. Sullenberger

A. Pilots are trained to bring in an aircraft in an emergency if an engine or other flight system fails, but what if they lose control of the steering? Airbus has come up with a way to maneuver a plane to the nearest runway even under these extreme circumstances, says New Scientist magazine. The trick is to switch fuel quickly between tanks in the wing, fuselage and tail, thus shifting the center of gravity to provide rudimentary steering. The flight management software is programmed to include emergency fuel-based steering: If the pilot needed to roll to the left, the system would pump fuel to the left wing's tank; to pitch the nose up, fuel would be pumped to the tank in the tail. And so on. Now everybody lives to fly another day.

Q. What happens when fictional book or movie characters get confused with real people? –J. Austen

A. This happens all the time. After the novel Bridges of Madison County became a best-seller, National Geographic magazine, where the fictional hero worked, was besieged by callers asking for the issue "with his photos in it," reports Carol Wade in Psychology.

The popular movie Forrest Gump prompted a flood of visitors to the University of Alabama, Gump's supposed alma mater, who demanded to see the (imaginary) star's trophies.

Believing appearances too much and ignoring the underlying situation is a fundamental human tendency, says Hope College psychologist David G. Myers, who recalls watching a talented 16-year-old girl play the part of a bitter old woman so convincingly he assumed she must have been typecast for the role– only to meet her at the cast party and discover a pleasant disposition. 

"I then remembered I had seen her play the part of a charming 10- year-old in The Sound of Music. Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame would not have been surprised by my error. He titled one of his books I Am Not Spock," Myers says.

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

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