April 21, 2023

Designing the Future of Medicine

Biomedical scientist Dr. Zoltan Takacs explains how his work creating designer neurotoxins could change the future of medicine.


What if lethal venom could be harnessed to save lives? That question has been the driving force behind Dr. Zoltan Takacs’ work for decades. Takacs followed his childhood passion for nature to more than 200 countries and territories, exploring some of the most remote habitats in the world. He spoke with Denver Zoo about his work, why conservation is critical to his mission, and how zoos are a vital part of conservation efforts ahead of his National Geographic Live show, “Deadliest Lifesavers.”  

Answers have been edited for length and clarity  

Denver Zoo (DZ): Where does your passion for animals come from? 

Dr. Zoltan Takacs (ZT): As a kid growing up in Budapest, Hungary, I used to spend my vacations exploring the countryside and Sundays often at the zoo. I was fascinated by wilderness, all living things, and to my parents' pleasure, I started to show up home with frogs, lizards, and snakes, including vipers at age 14. It is this childhood passion and excitement about beauty and the unknown that drives my career as well as my personal life. 

DZ: How did you manage to take that childhood passion and turn it into a career? 

ZT: Well, the snakes just kept coming home. I've got my first snakebites while in high school. My father also got bitten by one of my pet vipers. So, my interest got focused on venomous animals and their venoms. At the university, I majored in pharmaceutical sciences back in Budapest, then did a PhD at Columbia on why cobras are resistant to their own venoms. 

DZ: How would you explain your work to someone who isn’t familiar with molecular science? 

ZT: Our aim is to turn animal venom toxins into future medicines. Toxins have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years to immobilize and kill prey and predator in a matter of minutes. How do they do it? Toxins aim at critical targets in the animal body, for example, those that control the blood circulation or the nervous system. Now, quite often, these very same targets are also the ones that needed to be taken under control to treat diseases. Therefore, we are harnessing evolutionary wisdom by using toxins as templates to develop novel molecules with therapeutic potential. Our Designer Toxin technology creates the largest toxin libraries in the world, and we screen them for new leads -- new molecules which hopefully can make it into a medicine, for example for autoimmune disorders or cancer. 

Editor’s Note: For a full explanation, you can visit Zoltan’s website at http://zoltantakacs.com/   


DZ: Can you mention some examples of using venom in medicine? 

ZT: Animal venom toxins have already made huge impact in medicine. Leading medications for heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure, thrombosis, and diabetes are derived from snake, lizard, and leech venoms. Others are in clinical trials, for example, for Parkinson's disease or autoimmune disorders. One class of medicines developed from a toxin coming from a Brazilian pit viper venom, the ACE inhibitor class of drugs that includes lisinopril, are taken by 40 million patients around the world and is one of the most-prescribed class of medicines in the US. There are 200,000 venomous animal species around the world with an estimated 20 million toxins in their venom. The vast majority of those toxins are unknown to science. This is the potential that we are tackling. 

DZ: Why is conservation a critical component of your work? 

ZT: Conservation is critical, to both to my work and to our life, at least to the lifestyle as we know it. My work on toxins-to-medicines intimately depends on biodiversity as we are exploring the natural variability of toxins found in different species living in different environments. In other words, erasing biodiversity, will also erase the potential for future medicines. 

 DZ: How can accredited zoos and aquariums support the efforts to save habitats, species, and maintain this all-important biodiversity? 

ZT: I see zoos as playing three key roles in conservation. First, zoos can be major contributors to scientific research. Second, zoos are important for education, teaching visitors about the living world in an exciting face-to-face, sometimes hands-on fashion. Third, inspiring kids and adults about the beauty and value of nature, sort of the "coolness" factor. Making people, kids especially, getting excited and passionate can lead to them becoming scientists, engineers or policymakers – careers that can make a difference for biodiversity. 



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