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Surgeon David Allamby FRCS(Ed), FRCOphth
 David Allamby


From poison to potions: the toxins used in medicine that could save your life...

Learn more about vision correction


Worldwide, the prevalence of myopia has been rising dramatically, and it is estimated that 2.5 billion people will be affected by myopia by 2020, but a new study offers sufferers hope.

News research reveals that atropine, a toxic substance derived from deadly nightshade, can be an effective and sustainable treatment for progressive high myopia in Europeans, stopping short-sightedness in its tracks.

Deadly Nightshade used as Toxin

The research was conducted by the Erasmus Medical Center and Sophia Children's Hospital in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and was published in the journal MedScape.

Lead scientist Jan Polling used an alkaloid called ‘atropine’, first extracted from the Deadly Nightshade or ‘Belladonna’ plant, now commonly used in eye examinations to dilate the pupil.

Atropine - a muscle relaxing agent - and the eyes have a long history of association, though this is the first study of its kind into myopia for a Western population. The drop is now routinely used to treat progression of short-sight in Taiwan where myopia is at epidemic proportions.

During the Renaissance it’s thought women used the juice of the Belladonna berries to enlarge the pupils of their eyes to make them appear more seductive.

And it’s even thought that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra extracted atropine from the plant henbane to dilate her pupils.

egyptian eyes

But, atropine isn’t the only type of poison used in medicine.

Science shows that venoms from insects and animals can be harvested and used as medicinal treatment.

Here are some of the uses of toxins in modern day medicine:


spider toxin

A recent study at the University of Buffalo found that a particular protein found in spider venom could work as a treatment for muscular dystrophy. It was found that the protein helped stop muscle cells from deteriorating, and though it wasn’t a cure, it assisted in slowing down the progression of the disease.

Another study found that 7 different compounds in spider venom could potentially be used to help people with chronic pain - something that affects 1 in 5 people worldwide.


scorpion toxin

Seattle researchers developed “tumor paint” out of scorpion venom, which was successful in identifying brain cancer and lighting it up for doctors to see. They adapted a specific protein from the Israeli deathstalker scorpion to make it bind to cancer cells, then attached a fluorescent molecule that acts ‘glowstick’ to assist in surgeries or identifying cells within the body. Scorpion venom also has pain killing properties.


snake toxin

Hemotoxins in snake venom target the circulatory system but scientists have found ways to use them to treat heart attacks and blood disorders. The venom has also been used to stem bleeding.

Professor Manjunatha Kini of the National University of Singapore, is developing a compound from snake venom that could be 20 to 200 times more potent than morphine.


Clostridium Perfringens Bacteria used as Toxin

Botulinum toxin (BTX) is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The clinical syndrome of botulism can occur following ingestion of contaminated food, from colonization of the infant gastrointestinal tract, or from a wound infection.

The toxin is actually the most poisonous substance known to man. Two teaspoons would be enough to kill every man, woman and child in the UK while an amount weighing a couple of bags of sugar would kill every human on the planet.

Yet, we use this toxin in plastic surgery daily to enhance our appearance, reducing wrinkles, blemishes and imperfections.

Ergotergot toxin

Ergot is a fungus which infects rye, and if ingested causes hallucinations and attendant irrational behavior, convulsions, and even death.

Ergot alkaloids are used in products such as Cafergot (containing caffeine and ergotamine or ergoline) to treat migraine headaches. It is also used in a variety of treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

Puffer fishpuffer fish toxin

It’s well known that puffer fish toxins can cause muscle paralysis and heart failure, but scientists have begun to test the tetrodotoxin-based pain reliever in a small group of cancer patients acting as pain relief.

This really does prove that mother nature has her very own pharmacy at hand.

Whilst the benefits of using toxins in medicine are not quite fully understood yet, current studies illustrate that they have positive effects on those who are suffering, which could be life changing for all involved.

By: David
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