A new ‘scorpion-milking’ robot has been built to extract venom faster and more safely than ever before.
Scorpion venom is used in a number of medical fields, including cancer research, and is usually harvested manually in a process that can be potentially deadly.
“This robot makes venom recovery fast and safe”, according to Mouad Mkamel, who designed the robot with a team of researchers from Ben M’sik Hassan II University, Morocco.
“The extraction of scorpion venom is a very difficult task and usually takes at least two experimenters,” he added in a statement. “There are numerous risks including potentially deadly scorpion stings and electric shocks from the stimulators used to extract the venom.”
To make the entire process safer, the researchers designed VES-4, a lightweight, portable robot that can be used both in the lab and in the field.
“It is designed to extract scorpion venom without harming the animal and to provide more safety for the experimenters,” explains Mkamel.
Current scorpion-milking methods can be harmful both for the researchers, due to electric shocks from the equipment, and for the arachnid, where there is a risk of puncturing the venom gland or damaging the abdomen. The robot works by clamping the scorpion’s tail and electrically stimulating the creature so that it expresses droplets of venom, which are then captured and stored.
“VES-4 could be used by one person using a remote control to safely recover scorpion venom remotely,” says Mkamel.
The robot has been tested on multiple species of scorpions and can be programmed with specific settings for different species, with the information displayed on an LED screen.
For the uninitiated, we have gathered five of the lesser known, mind-boggling facts about scorpion venom below.
Act as a painkiller
Researchers have looked into using the natural compounds found in scorpion venom as a painkiller. Research published in 2013 found that the grasshopper mouse is equipped with a protein that stops its nerves firing when it gets stung by a bark scorpion, meaning that the venom actively works as a painkiller. The hope is that the findings could eventually lead to the development of a new drug for humans.
Illuminate cancer cells
The painful venom could also be used to assist cancer treatments in future. Researchers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington and startup Blaze Bioscience have developed so-called ‘tumour paint’, which uses fluorescent molecules attached to natural toxins, such as scorpion venom. These attach to cancers, effectively lighting them up. The method is undergoing clinical trials and enables doctors to pinpoint the exact location and extent of cancerous growths in the body.
Help prevent organ rejection
Scorpion venom, or a synthesised version of it, also has the potential to be used in immunosuppressant drugs. These medicines are used to reduce the body’s ability to reject a transplanted organ. Immunosuppressants often cause severe side effects for patients, so developing new types may be advantageous.
Research suggests that scorpion venom can block bone loss, making it a useful substance for treating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. In 2011, a 71-year-old Cuban man claimed that he fends off aches and pains by letting scorpions sting him at least once a month.
Scorpion venom is also an unlikely ally in the fight against malaria. In 2011, a researcher from the University of Maryland modified a parasitic fungus loaded with a substance found in scorpion venom in order to attack the malaria parasites found inside mosquitos.