The Venom Cure: Turning Deadly Animal Poison Into Miracle Drugs
GENEVA - Reto Stöcklin can boast owning the world’s largest collection of venom. He has 1,200 samples in a freezer. A biochemist by training, he’s also a “serial entrepreneur.” The five start-ups he has created are all linked to his famous library of samples taken from snakes, fish, insects and venomous shellfish.
Founded in 1995, in Geneva, Atheris is his figurehead company. The company researches new active ingredients that could have therapeutic value. “In venom, you have a cocktail of 200 to 1,000 molecules. Each one can attack a specific biological system. Thanks to methods like liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, we are able to research, isolate and identify original active ingredients that could interest biotech companies,” says Stöcklin.
These companies – pharmaceutical and biotech companies – then conduct the necessary clinical studies for eventual commercialization of the molecule. “Generally, it is also these clients that ask us to find the molecule capable of attacking a specific illness.”
Often away on expeditions abroad, Stöcklin speaks very openly about his passion. There are already venom-based medications on the market, he says: three anticoagulants containing venom taken from a rattlesnake, a viper and a leech respectively, used to prevent heart attacks or the formation of blood clots; an anti-diabetic drug from lizard venom; a drug from viper venom that treats hypertension; and an analgesic made from venomous snails.
Atheris is not behind any of the venom-based drugs currently available on the market. However, several of the active ingredients researched by the Geneva company are presently being tested in clinical trials. One molecule the company worked on could be used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis and is presently being tested on patients.
To generate turnover (company figures are not disclosed) Atheris and its 15 employees also accept research mandates from small and medium enterprises, science labs, and pharmaceutical companies. Its mass spectrometers make it possible to study and analyze the structure of molecules.
Venom-based anti-wrinkle creams
“We’re seeing growing interest in the small proteins,” Stöcklin says. Among its different research programs, Atheris coordinated a 17 million Swiss francs ($18.3 million) project to decode the Conus consors, a venomous species of sea snail.
“We have discovered several interesting molecules and have decided to create two start-ups to commercialize them,” Stöcklin explains. One of those two start-ups is Activen in Lausanne. With its staff of six, the young company makes an anti-wrinkle mixture that has a “Botox”-like effect. “It includes a molecule that has a paralyzing effect. We sell the mixture to cosmetic companies that are going to be launching finished products on the market early this year,” Stöcklin says. “The anti-wrinkle effect is produced as soon as the product is applied and lasts for 24 hours.”
The other start-up that stems from the Conus consors project is one that commercializes peptides capable of crossing through cellular membranes and penetrating cells without damaging them. “Our goal is to develop chemotherapeutic agents that specifically target cancerous cells to increase efficiency of the treatment and reduce secondary effects,” says the entrepreneur.
As for Funzyme, another start-up created by the biologist and businessman, it’s on track and continues its work on coeliac disease (gluten intolerance) via molecules discovered in the secretions of pathogenic mushrooms. The enzymes of the pathogenic mushrooms are capable of degrading gluten into amino acids. The company hopes it will be able to launch a product in between three to five years from now, and is currently raising funds.
The Geneva company, HiQScreen, co-founded by Reto Stöcklin, also deserves a mention. It develops robots and services for high-throughput screening in biological endeavors aimed at the discovery and in-depth study of new active ingredients.