State of the Planet

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Snake Expert and Former Earth Institute Fellow Named a National Geographic “Emerging Explorer”

Venom from this Hog Nose Pit Viper Could Lead to Drugs to Treat a Variety of Diseases. Courtesy of Zoltan Takacs.
Venom from this Hog Nose Pit Viper Could Lead to Drugs to Treat a Variety of Diseases. Courtesy of Zoltan Takacs.

Snake venom can kill, but it might also save your life. Zoltan Takacs has co-invented a technology for building “toxin libraries” that might one day lead to drugs that can treat cancer, multiple sclerosis and a variety of other diseases. His quest for venomous creatures has taken him to 133 countries, across jungles, deserts and oceans. National Geographic recently named Takacs a 2010 “Emerging Explorer” and awarded him $10,000 toward further research and exploration.

“Snake venom evolved to immobilize and kill its prey quickly,” he said. “But these same toxins can be used to save lives.”

Takacs earned his Ph.D. in evolutionary studies on cobra venom from Columbia University. During a fellowship with the Earth Institute in 1999, he traveled to Vietnam and Myanmar to collect tissue samples from primates and snakes through EI’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. He also established and co-taught Columbia’s first course in herpetology.

“He is an intrepid field worker, excellent lab worker and a very good scientist,” said his former adviser Don Melnick, who now heads Columbia’s Center for Environment, Economy and Society. Takacs is now a research scientist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

Only several hundred of the estimated 20 million toxins produced by snakes, scorpions and other animals around the globe have been studied in great detail, he said. Yet, a dozen of those known toxins have already been developed into drugs to treat high blood pressure, heart attack and diabetes. “The toxins in nature have immense biomedical potential,” he said. “However, you have to find, or create, the right toxin for the right receptor in order to be therapeutically useful. It’s like making a million different keys and finding one which will open the lock.”

In two weeks, Takacs heads to Southeast Asia to chase after more snakes, collecting tissue samples that contain DNA—valuable templates for his toxin libraries. To learn more about his work, read this profile in National Geographic.

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