* Zoltan Takacs crosses paths with a Slender-necked sea snake (Hydrophis coggeri) in the South Pacific waters. Photograph: Zoltan Takacs.
In Qatar, Zoltan Takacs has been out in the field most days, making long treks,
turning over rocks, capturing snakes and scorpions and sleeping under the stars
at night in his bid to collect tissue samples for his research on toxins, used in
life-saving drugs. By Fran Gillespie
Zoltan Takacs is an adventurer with a mission. He travels to the far corners of the earth, sometimes flying a small plane, sometimes trekking through remote jungles and wading swamps. In the course of his travels he’s been threatened by pirates, chased by elephants, menaced by crocodiles, sprayed with venom by a cobra, dodged civil wars and seen the inside of a Bulgarian military jail.
All this in pursuit of his passion and profession, to collect the venom from creatures as different as snakes, scorpions and stonefish — and there are an incredible number of them, he says — and develop drugs from the venom which can be used to treat life-threatening conditions.
So far he’s been bitten by venomous snakes no fewer than six times. This is a man who is well aware that he is allergic not only to snake venom but to the antivenom used to treat bites, but that doesn’t stop him from pursuing and capturing them to take tissue samples or collect the crude venom from fangs and stingers.
He doesn’t wear much in the way of protective gear either, just gloves when he’s capturing sea snakes underwater. So far he’s clocked up visits to 138 countries. Qatar is his most recent.
Named as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2010, he was awarded a grant by that organisation and profiled in the January 2013 issue of the magazine, followed the next month by an article featuring his work. He’s also received support from sources within Qatar to pursue his research in Arabia, and was invited to visit this country to aid the exploration of local venomous creatures. He has also worked in the UAE, Oman and Yemen.
In an interview with Gulf Times, Hungarian-born Takacs explained why, when countries such as Australia are alive with venomous beasties of all descriptions, ranging from the deadly Taipan snake to the Blue-ringed octopus, he chose to come to Qatar which has far fewer species.
“Worldwide there are well over 100,000 venomous species,” he explained, “and each produces a slightly different type of venom. Venom is used by an animal to harm, immobilise or kill its prey, and also, of course, for defence. These toxins have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to be extremely good at their job. In order to survive, these animals rely on their venom, each containing hundreds of toxins. The two most prominent examples of venom actions are one which attacks the signals from nerves to muscles, and one that wrecks the blood clotting mechanism, causing either massive internal bleeding or coagulation, depending on the species involved.”
How can venom, which is normally harmful to humans, be converted into beneficial drugs? “Even within these two examples,” Takacs went on to say, “are hundreds of targets. On the outside of each cell or in the blood is an endless number of tiny molecules called receptors that instruct the cells and tissues what to do and how to do it. Toxins block these very receptors, causing the cell tissues to diverge from their normal functions or even die. Drugs aim to do exactly the same thing, aiming at the same target as toxins.”
World-wide, he pointed out, only a minute amount of toxins have been studied, the science of characterising venoms is still in its infancy. Of these, very few have been studied in Arabia. Even a tiny bit of DNA sequence, from the venom of, say, one scorpion and another closely related species can produce a completely different result when assayed in biomedical research labs. There may well be toxins present in venomous creatures in the Qatari region that are not found anywhere else. The composition of the venom of a single species of snake can vary from place to place, and even between adult and juvenile snakes.
It has been known for centuries that venom can help with certain types of disease — bee stings, for example, were formerly used to alleviate rheumatism — but modern research into the potential of venom for use in drugs dates back only a century. It really took off in the 1960s when it was discovered that a certain kind of venom from a species of viper could be used against deep-vein thrombosis.
In Qatar, Takacs has been out in the field most days, making long treks, turning over rocks, capturing snakes and scorpions and sleeping under the stars at night. He’s also visited farms where he showed photographs of snakes to the farm workers and asked them to let him know if they have seen any.
He collects tissue samples rather than crude venom. “A tissue sample can be taken home for processing in the lab,” he explains, “and its DNA will give you the blueprint for the animal, including most of its toxins.” He has also been studying the sea snakes off the coast of Qatar — “We don’t even know yet exactly how many species there are in the Arabian Gulf” — and staff at shoreline establishments have assisted, as sea snakes sometimes turn up in their backyards.
Of Arabian species he says, “Do you know that venom from the Carpet viper is the source of one of the most important drugs to treat heart attack victims? And that venom from the ‘Deathstalker’ scorpion was the subject of recent clinical trials for the treatment of brain tumours? Just these two random examples show how much potential there is right here on the Arabian peninsula.”
At the University of Chicago, Takacs was the co-inventor of a technology in which researchers recombine toxins and compare their therapeutic values. ‘Designer Toxins’, he calls it.
It makes it possible to create vast numbers of variants, and speeds up the race to develop new treatments. For example, the toxins from the venom of three different species of scorpion have been combined to create a novel ‘designer toxin’, promising for the treatment of auto-immune disease.
Recently, Takacs set up his own biotech venture, exploring toxins for therapeutic use. “From the toxin identification, it takes anything from seven to 25 years before a new drug can be marketed,” he says. “But the very first and one of the most critical step is to identify — or create — the toxins that have the properties you want from a drug. So we actually go out and collect a diverse set of toxins from all venomous creatures.”
Once back in the lab with his collection of samples, he isolates the toxins’ DNA from the tissues. Then the work starts. His ‘toxin library’ can accommodate up to a million different toxins and their engineered variants, in order to test which ones are most promising for medicinal use.
Zoltan Takacs’ advice for anyone who is unlucky enough to be bitten or stung by a snake, scorpion, stone fish or sting ray? “Qatar has excellent transportation and communication networks, and distances are short enough for anyone to get to hospital quickly. Forget all that first-aid stuff — don’t waste time — the two things you need are your mobile phone and a set of wheels.”