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Northern Colorado professor's work with snake venom could lead to cancer cure

On January 21, 2013

  • Professor Stephen Mackessy lectures to one of his classes. Mackessy has been working with snake venom for six years. Samantha Valenzuela | The Mirror

Colleges have long been at the forefront of scientific research, and UNC is no exception. Most notably, the University of Northern Colorado's own Stephen Mackessy recently received a $50,480 grant for a cancer research project he has been involved with for six years. 

Mackessy's current project began in 2006 when an undergraduate student named Michael Bradshaw expressed interest in working with cancer and finding potential treatments for it through lab work and research. Both Bradshaw and Mackessy were cancer survivors with a keen interest in finding a more effective way to treat the disease.

"This was really just sort of a 'stars aligned correctly' kind of thing," said Mackessy, who works in the College of Natural and Health Sciences. "I had just received some grant money in 2006, and I had an undergraduate - a highly intelligent, motivated individual - who was interested in working with cancer."

Mackessy is speaking about his ongoing research in possible treatments for certain types of cancer using certain compounds in snake venom. The research has attracted the attention of some important patrons, likely because of its innovative nature.

One such party is the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, which gave Mackessy $53,260 for research in 2006.  When results looked promising, the office approved another $50,480 bioscience grant for it to continue.

"One of the things we were interested in," Mackessy said, "was what particular venoms from snakes were most effective at killing cancer.  We screened 40 to 50 snakes from all over the world - vipers, cobras, rear-fang snakes.  We wanted to find out if there were compounds in the venom that could serve as a drug for certain disorders. We were also interested in looking at venoms from snakes that hadn't been looked at before."

While snake venom might hold the key to a potential cure for certain ills such as breast, colon and skin cancers - which kill more than 100,000 people every year - simply injecting people with venom won't cure cancer.

"It's like a shotgun blast with a number of different pellets," Mackessy said. "There might only be one magic bullet that works. If you take an everyday prairie rattlesnake from just outside of town, it probably has 50 to 100 different proteins in its venom. So we take it apart. We look at compound one, two, three, four and see how it reacts with cancer cells."

The process, while sometimes quite fruitful, takes a long time, which is the reason the project has continued for six years and requires the aid of the bioscience grants. Routinely breaking down snake venom and testing each of its compounds to see how they react with cancer cells is time-consuming.

While Mackessy has remained at UNC and continues research, Bradshaw has since graduated and moved on, securing a position at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Since then, UNC graduate student Anthony Saviola has been helping Mackessy in the lab, putting to use this most recent grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
In addition to receiving grant money for his research, Mackessy has also attracted the eye of a few drug companies, who have potential interest in working with the compounds in snake venom to develop a cure.

The project has received a fair amount of press lately, as scientists like Mackessy have shown that the bite of venomous serpents might be at the center of a more effective cancer treatment. Given the politics and the process of pharmaceutical companies in America, however, it will take time before anything resembling a shelf-ready drug is on the market.

Still, Mackessy says he has some promising leads that both the government and the drug companies are interested in developing.

While the research is incredibly important with some far-reaching consequences, Mackessy says he also simply enjoys working with the cold-blooded specimens on a personal level as well.

"The animals themselves are pretty cool," he said. "The venom, however, is even cooler."

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