SLADE, Ky. (WKYT) - A cancer-fighting drug with Kentucky connections has had what could be a major breakthrough, reportedly showing positive results in early trials.
The company's founders, two brothers from Ireland, told the newspaper that initial testing on the drug went "better than could be expected," showing benefits to two-thirds of the patients who used it.
The venom in the drug comes from a particular subspecies of South American rattlesnakes, Crotalus durissus terrificus, which are kept at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade. Workers there extract the venom that goes into the experimental drug.
Experts with the Powell County organization told WKYT's Garrett Wymer that bites from the snakes can be potentially deadly.
"It is mind-blowing in a way," said Kristen Wiley, the reptile zoo's co-director, "that something that could kill you could also save your life under a different set of circumstances."
Workers at the zoo know firsthand how bad a bite from that species can be. The zoo's other co-director, Jim Harrison, was bitten by a South American rattlesnake a few years ago.
"They can cause damage to the tissue, and then they also have a high neurotoxin in their venom," Wiley said. "He was basically unconscious within several minutes of the bite - maybe 10 or 15 minutes he was losing consciousness. But it also caused him to have some breakdown of muscle tissue, as well."
It is those very properties, however, that could be the key to curing cancer, researchers said.
Dr. Paul and John Reid, co-founders of Celtic Biotech, told The Irish Sun that the drug, made by extracting crotoxin from freeze-dried venom, binds itself to a protein in cancer cells and kills them.
Initial studies showed that the tumors of patients taking the drug for five weeks did not grow. They also showed that the drug has strong painkilling effects.
"So imagine a drug that will not only treat your cancer, but will also treat your pain - and doesn't have any side effects," John Reid told the Sun.
The Reid brothers said that having their own colony of snakes at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo helps make it cheaper for them to get the venom for the drug.
Workers at the zoo extract the venom about every three weeks, collecting only about three grams' worth of venom from the nearly 40 South American rattlesnakes there, Wiley said. She equated the weight of one gram to the weight of a paper clip.
The zoo's rattlesnakes are just about due for venom extraction again. Workers there plan to extract the venom from them at 1 p.m. Friday. Extractions are open to anyone visiting the zoo. The zoo also posts videos of its extractions on its Facebook page.