Steve Ludwin has been injecting snake venom into his body for more than 20 years – for his health, he says.
“Despite a stint in intensive care after an overdose from three separate venoms, a suspected heart attack brought on by cobra venom and a temporarily rotting leg, nothing thus far has put me off my passion for studying this highly evolved reptilian saliva,” Ludwin said in a Reddit question-and-answer session on Tuesday.
But is there any scientific evidence for the claim that snake venom, in controlled doses, can be good for you?
The answer is: sort of. But it’s definitely not something you want to try at home.
In a paper published in Nature in October 2012, a team of French scientists described how the venom of the black mamba contains a kind of compound that could yield better painkillers. Scientists isolated the new compounds, called “mambalgins,” and tried them out on mice to see how they affected pain pathways. The malmbagins turned out to target a different area of the pain pathway than any other drugs in use. What’s more, the mice developed less tolerance for the mambalgins than typically seen for morphine, and the new compound didn’t cause the same breathing side effects that morphine does.
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Other researchers have examined the ability of snake venom toxins to kill cancer cells. Venom from the turan blunt-nosed viper was shown to inhibit colon cancer cell growth; toxins from the desert cobra have arrested the progress of multiple myeloma, a near-incurable blood cancer, in the petri dish. But killing cancer cells in the lab is a far cry from a viable treatment in a living person.
Another health claim related to venom injections is the supposed effect on telomeres, which are bits of repetitive DNA at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres help protect your genes against the natural degradation that comes with chromosome replication and cell division. They become naturally shorter over time, with each successive cell division, and some scientists theorize that telomere shortening is responsible for many signs of aging.
Animal studies of telomeres and aging have yielded some promising preliminary results. A paper published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine in May 2012 found that mice treated with a gene therapy that boosted levels of telomerase, the enzyme that builds up telomeres, had a lifespan up to 24 percent longer than untreated mice. The mice also seemed to be cancer-free, which is one of the major theoretical hurdles to telomerase therapy -- the enzyme can also help cancer cells persist long past their expiration date.
46-year-old Ludwin, on Reddit, claimed that he had been tested and been found to have telomeres similar to a 28-year-old’s.
"Although I don't recommend or condone any person inject themselves or others with snake venom, I do believe from my experience there are possible benefits to self-immunisation," Ludwin wrote.
But there’s scant evidence that prolonged exposure to snake venom has any effect on a person’s telomeres. And it’s still unclear just how much of aging we can blame on telomere shortening, since there’s natural variance in telomere lengths among people – it’s not like the age rings on a tree.
Bill Haast, a famous snake handler that was bitten at least 173 times by poisonous snakes before he died at age 100 in 2011, found one novel way to use his envenomation for good – donating his blood, loaded with natural antibodies against venom, to snakebite victims. Haast, who Ludwin cites as inspiration, built up his own immunity by injecting himself with venoms from 32 different kinds of dangerous snakes every day for more than 60 years.
“I was born with a passion for snakes, when I met Bill Haast at an early age (9) I was intrigued by what he was doing and wanted to see if I could push the theories,” Ludwin said on Reddit. “Some people pick up a guitar, I picked up a snake (and also a guitar).”