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SOCAL P.O.V. / PATT MORRISON

The True Tale of the Researcher and the Serpent

November 22, 1998|PATT MORRISON

We have braided tightly into our psychohistory--inextricably as a spiral strand of DNA--the sinister silhouette of the snake.

The serpent was already ancient when pre-humans descended from the trees. It has been the tempter of Eden, central in murals of Minoan ladies, in tales of St. Patrick and of mesmerized Appalachian preachers--the silent, envenomed enemy of everything upright and forthright and, well, human.

But then there is the caduceus, the Greeks' mythic wand of power, which, in the hands of Asclepius, god of medicine, was entwined with a serpent, a symbol recognized even today as the icon, as unmistakable as the pawnbroker's globes, of the healer.

The benevolent serpent came to mind when I read of Frank Markland's research into the likelihood that out of those poisoned fangs comes a protein that might one day put the brakes on the growth of cancer cells.

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That Markland wound up as a USC professor of biochemistry and biology--and wearing a white lab coat as a member of USC's Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center--is a matter of happenstance. He might instead have been in military uniform, had he stayed in the Navy after his NROTC years. Or he might have been in overalls, like his gentleman-farmer father, had he stuck with his agronomy major at Penn State instead of switching majors, eventually going to Johns Hopkins Medical School and coming to UCLA to teach biochemistry.

It was a uniform of a different kind, a sporting shirt, that put him onto snake-venom research. He had separated his shoulder in a rugby game, and while he was laid up, an intern showed him a study of pregnant women in Southeast Asia. They had been bitten by venomous snakes but reported no problems other than their blood not clotting easily. Would Frank be interested in collaborating?

Snakes? Growing up in Pennsylvania, Markland had set out to trap minnows for bait, and the bucket he hauled out of the creek was full all right--a writhing Medusa's mess of water moccasins and other vipers. "I just dropped that thing and ran like crazy."

There are 40 or 50 different proteins in a single jet of snake venom; one of those, called fibrolase, can dissolve blood clots formed during strokes and heart attacks. Similar enzymes already are being used to prevent blood clots elsewhere in the world. A couple of years back, Markland and his colleagues isolated the clot-busting enzyme fibrolase in the venom of agkistrodon contortrix contortrix, the Southern copperhead.

Then the leap, the whammo connection that brought him to his current work. Tumor cells also have integrants, the same kind of surface proteins found on blood platelets that he knew are affected by snake-venom protein. Could the snake substances affect cancer cells, too?

The answer could be, might be, seems to be, yes. With human breast cancer cells injected into mice and treated with the refined snake-venom protein contortrostatin, Markland's team found "a double whammy." Not only was cancer cell growth inhibited, but angiogenesis, the way tumors create blood vessels to feed themselves so they can grow and spread, was slowed down as well.

In short, like preliminary work elsewhere in cancer research, this substance doesn't kill cancer cells as classic chemotherapy does but puts them, like Sleeping Uglies, into suspended animation.

Do not think that this is as easy as getting snake-bit. A gram of yellow, freeze-dried snake-farm milked venom costs $50 to $100. Markland gets about 10 grams at a time and runs it through a month of refining and testing before it's lab-ready.

All this is hedged with cautions and precautions. Already Markland has gotten the same kind of begging calls from the desperately ill that herald every first step on the tall staircase of treatment. Don't call. Practical human testing is "a couple of years off.

"I cannot in fairness to you or your loved ones offer this out as a hope."

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A pair of ironies gallop into frame here.

First, this research is paid for mostly by California taxes on cigarettes. "Keep smoking, please," Markland jokes, then apologizes for saying so.

Second, the snake itself is a creature of Southern climes, and the Southern copperhead isn't exactly plentiful on the ground; its habitat in Georgia and Florida is disappearing. Markland hopes that he and his research team can come up with lab-grown venom.

What a Maguffin moment if the creature that has haunted the nightmares of humans might be found to halt the disease that haunts their nightmares--just as it is being wiped out by man himself.

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