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The venom is the cure

“As a young kid, I wasn’t thinking about being a medical researcher,” began Dr. Zoltan Takacs, reflecting on the early days of his childhood in Budapest, Hungary. Like many other spirited youngsters, he was diving head-first into nature without too much thought: taking home toads, lizards, and venomous snakes whenever he could get his eager hands on them.

“Despite the inherent dangers, I was completely captivated by venomous snakes,” he continued. “This drew my interest further to study pharmacology.”

Flash forward to the present, and Takacs’ childlike sense of adventure and wholehearted embrace of the environment’s wild side has only intensified. After studying pharmaceutical sciences in Hungary, as well as obtaining a PhD in pharmacology from Columbia, Takacs has embedded himself in the jungles and canopies of the Amazon rainforest.

Specializing in venom research, he’s become a world-renowned scientist and explorer, discovering innovative cures for life-threatening diseases from unlikely sources. For instance, from inside tiny scorpions, marine snails, or the 5 cm long fangs of a Gaboon viper.

“The very same power that can kill, can be used to treat high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, and HIV pain,” explained Takacs. “Venom can save your life – it’s a paradox only till you discover a pure toxin.”

Venom toxins, though often carried in a frightening package, have some of the most potent and selective molecules in the world. Moreover, they are one of the best templates for designing new therapeutic agents. Presently, there are about 20 mainstream medications made from animal venoms, which are taken by 40 million patients around the world. The challenge is that there are still 20 million toxins left in the world that are completely unexplored. That’s where Takacs comes in.

“I co-invented ‘Designer Toxins’ technology, a platform that starts with natural animal toxins from around the world, creates millions of combinatorial variants, then screens for those with the highest promise to treat diseases,” he said. “We are innovating on nature’s already powerful toxins to push them ahead for drug development and other biotech solutions.”

To see Takacs in his element is truly an exercise in extreme contrasts. Illuminated by the glow of a small bonfire on the rainforest floor, he types away at his ThinkPad with a flashlight headband strapped on. And even though he’s been bitten by so many venomous creatures he’s actually become allergic to both, the venom and the anti-venom, there’s no way he plans on slowing down.

“I’m extremely passionate about my work — others would call it crazy!” laughed Takacs. “For me, it is an intellectual challenge and satisfaction that is particularly rewarding to be engaged in.”

In his travels across 158 countries, Takacs has learned to dredge water from forest plants, outrun elephants, and how to find snakes by simply listening to the chirps of birds. But with 150,000 venomous animal species in the world, he still has many more daring adventures ahead of him.

 

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