From painkillers to bomb-detection, animal venom can lend itself to a whole host of uses - the latest of which tackles one of world's most prevalent and devastating diseases. As you’d imagine, brain surgery is no walk in the park. When surgeons are tasked with removing a tumour, much time is spent studying its exact size and location before the patient goes under the knife. While tumours are relatively easy to spot during an MRI scan, things aren't quite so simple in the operating room. It comes down to steady hands and well-trained eyes to distinguish healthy brain cells from tumour cells. But a new tool may just make things a little bit easier for brain surgeons. And it comes from an unlikely source: scorpion venom.

Venom from the deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus quinquestriatus) contains a protein called chlorotoxin which it uses to paralyse and ultimately kill its prey. As far back as 1998, researchers started exploring the potential of the chemical in the fight against cancer when they discovered that it binds to receptors on the surface of tumour cells. Combine this protein with a non-toxic chemical that glows under near-infrared light and you’ve got yourself some tumour paint. The new ‘paint’ is injected into the veins of patients before surgery and if all goes to plan, the chemicals cross the blood-brain barrier and latch onto tumours causing them to glow under a near-infrared light and making it easier for surgeons to remove them. Human trials are still being conducted, but researchers are reporting promising results. 

“[T]he question was, 'Does it glow?' And when we saw that it glows, it was just one of those moments...'Wow, this works,’” Chirag Patil, one of the researchers behind the test at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told NPR.

Although it is hoped that less invasive techniques will replace surgery in the future , the scorpion-venom solution serves as a vital tool for helping surgeons extract tumours more precisely.

Deathstalker scorpion 2015-04-09

Of course the deathstalkers are unaware of the medicinal uses of their potent venom. If the name wasn't a dead giveaway, these arthropods are very effective killers. Their venom is a powerful blend of neurotoxins used to prey on small insects, spiders, centipedes, earthworms, and even other scorpions.

Although it's pretty powerful stuff (some estimates suggest that they are the third most venomous scorpion in the world), their venom is unlikely to kill an adult human.

Header image: János Balázs/Flickr