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At UNC, Steve Mackessy and his students extract venom from snakes to study.EXPAND
At UNC, Steve Mackessy and his students extract venom from snakes to study.
Courtesy of Adaptation Environmental Services

Snakes Alive! Could Rattlesnake Venom Strike at Cancer?

Indiana Jones isn’t the only person to have stumbled upon a pit of snakes. Earlier this month, a construction company working near the foothills between Golden and Boulder found five rattlesnakes at a work site. They were likely part of a rookery, a gathering of pregnant snake mothers-to-be preparing for birth.

Looking for a “snake wrangler,” the crew contacted Adaptation Environmental Services, a company that specializes in extracting such animals. While some sightings turn out not to be rattlesnakes, this call sounded legitimate, explains AES owner Joe Ehrenberger, in part because the site was close to the foothills.

Ehrenberger has been interested in snakes for decades and has worked with the Indianapolis Zoo, Boulder County and Jefferson County Open Space. He's owned AES since 2012, and began taking on rattlesnake-related jobs in 2014.

When he and his team arrived at the construction project, they found the snakes in a cement wash area surrounded by a sea of grass, conditions “perfect for cooking up babies,” Ehrenberger says. “After we had them all, we checked the whole work site. We needed to make sure [the construction workers] were safe.”

While they didn't find any other snakes, AES offers education as well as extraction. Ehrenberger and his team talked to the construction crew about how to identify rattlesnakes (vertical pupils, white facial stripes), and also offered general safety tips, including how to avoid provoking a snake and how to care for a bite.

They sent the snakes to Steve Mackessy at the University of Northern Colorado; the professor and his students are currently studying variations in rattlesnake bite symptoms from specimens across the state. “We are trying to sample the greater metro area in large, circular ring fashion,” explains Mackessy. “We’re trying to narrow down the area where we see the break between northern and southern types of rattlesnakes.”

After extraction, snakes are placed in five-gallon buckets and photos taken so Ehrenberger and his team can identify “repeat offenders.”
After extraction, snakes are placed in five-gallon buckets and photos taken so Ehrenberger and his team can identify “repeat offenders.”
Courtesy of Adaptation Environmental Services

While the study is not yet complete, Mackessy’s data indicates that around south Denver, there's a transition in the effects of rattlesnake bites and the contents of their venom. Northern rattlesnakes, such as those found at the construction site, possess a large amount of a small peptide toxin in their venom that is “a very potent paralytic,” he says. In short, the northern snakes are likely more lethal, but the southern ones, according to Mackessy, can cause greater tissue damage.

But while rattlesnake venom can be deadly, it can be beneficial for treating cancer. “Rattlesnake venom contains disintegrins, which are an anti-cancer therapeutic,” Mackessy notes. The disintegrins counteract the cancer cells’ integrins, which Mackessy likens to molecular legs, which is what allow the disease to spread throughout a victim’s body. “When you put [disintegrins] in with cancer cells, they won’t kill the cancer until you’re using extremely high doses, but it interferes with the cancer’s ability to move about.”

His is not the only rattlesnake study; research on the benefits of the venom are being conducted around the world. “If we don’t conserve these animals," Mackessy says, "we might lose that source of medication.”

Joe Ehrenberger removes snakes from a rookery found between Golden and Boulder.
Joe Ehrenberger removes snakes from a rookery found between Golden and Boulder.
Courtesy of Adaptation Environmental Services

After extracting venom samples, Mackessy sent the snakes back to Ehrenberger, who relocated them. “Ideally, we put them back within a mile away from where we found them,” says Ehrenberger. “The farther away they are from their home, the less likely they are to survive.” Finding a place to relocate the snakes can be a bit of a task, however. AES must ensure that should the snakes choose to return to their original home, they won’t have to cross through residential areas that would put humans and pets at risk. The team also confirms that the snakes won’t encounter hazards like highways while trying to find food.

The idea behind relocating the snakes rather than exterminating them is to maintain the “ecosystem services” that they provide. “They’re crucial for other animals,” says Ehrenberger. “They keep the rodent population in check, which is great, because rodents carry diseases like the plague.”

Mackessy agrees that snakes should be saved. “There’s such a need for conservation of these animals,” he says. “There’s a fear because...venom can produce changes in the body, [but] venom contains a variety of wonderful compounds that can regulate blood pressure, clotting disorders and other afflictions."

And there's another benefit: Snakes are a food source for other animals, such as birds of prey and foxes. “Everybody loves spaghetti night,” jokes Ehrenberger.

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