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Snakes, smokes enlisted in fight against cancer

snake February 27, 1998
Web posted at: 6:00 p.m. EST (2300 GMT)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Cigarettes and poisonous snakes may be deadly, but they are also valuable resources for California researchers who are searching for ways to fight cancer.

Researchers at the University of Southern California have isolated a protein from snake venom and are testing its effectiveness in stopping the spread of cancer cells throughout the body.

So far, the venom extract has proven successful in treating mice bred to grow human breast cancers.

So how do the cigarettes factor in?

The tax imposed on tobacco in California that is designed to discourage smokers is also used to fund research projects.

"If everyone were to quit smoking tomorrow, the funding would sort of dry up," said researcher Francis Markland. "I don't think that's very likely, but in the long term future that's what the goal of the program is."

Isolated proteins save lives

Snake venom research is being conducted at other facilities too, but the California researchers have chosen to extract their poison from the agkistrondon contortix contortix, or Southern copperhead.

There are thousands of proteins in snake venom. Together they can be deadly, but isolated and purified proteins could save lives.

Markland says his isolated protein is called "contortrostatin, in honor of the snake from which it is derived."

Tests on mice have found that the protein inhibits the growth of tumors and the spread of cancer cells throughout the body  

Used on the mice in the lab, Markland and his team have found the protein inhibits growth of cancer tumors and prevents metastasis, or the spreading of cancer cells throughout the body.

"The mechanism is not fully understood yet," Markland told CNN. "We know that it inhibits adhesion of the tumor cell to the surrounding matrix."

That means the protein keeps the cancer cells from interacting with healthy cells, and it cuts off the tumor from essential nutrients it needs to keep growing.

Markland and his fellow researchers say they are grateful for a chance to beat cancer using money that would otherwise go up in smoke.

Correspondent Dan Rutz contributed to this report.


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