The Lancet article entitled 'Can scorpions be useful?' has been contributed by a rural doctor of Maharashtra. Dr. Himmat Bawaskar has been working in Mahad in Raigad district for over three decades. His challenge runs parallel to various cures from venom toxins , such as California's Sinai Medical Centre manufacture of an equivalent of the scorpion venom touted to fight brain tumors.
Bawaskar says that the venom in western Maharashtra's indigenous Red Scorpion holds a chemical that could stimulate the body's ion channels in such a manner, as to reverse a particular heart condition.
Ion channels can be termed proteins which regulate the movement of electrically charged atoms or molecules in and out of body cells. If chlorine channels in the stomach cells maintain acidity, sodium channels in the nerve cells control electrical stimuli.
"If scientists could isolate the sodium channel stimulator in the scorpion venom, patients suffering from Brugada Syndrome could be saved", says Bawaskar.
Brugada Syndrome is an inherited disease which causes sudden and unexpected deaths in apparently healthy young people. This has been hypothesized to be due to severe disturbances in the heart's rhythm.
The Brugada Syndrome is not very common in India. Yet in Japan, Saudi Arabia, Russia and many European nations, it is often listed as a cause of cardiac deaths in young people. Vulnerable patients need expensive intra-cardiac defibrillators to survive. Scorpion venom can be a cheaper alternative, proposes the Lancet article.
Recollecting how he came across the unlikely connection between scorpion venom and a possible cure for this heart ailment, Dr Bawaskar talks of the out -of-the-ordinary ECG report of a ten-year-old boy who was bitten by a Red Scorpion two years ago. "Thirty-six hours after his treatment at Mahad hospital, the boy's ECG report showed patterns characteristic of the Brugada Syndrome." The patterns were resolved within the next 72 hours and the boy showed a normal ECG report thereafter.
"My deduction is that the scorpion venom stimulated the boy's sodium channel immediately after the sting, leading to bouts of vomiting. But 36 hours later, the channel was paralyzed due to over activity and showed up in the ECG as the Brugada Syndrome pattern," analyses Bawaskar. The Indian boy doesn't have Brugada Syndrome, but the venom stimulated his responses in a manner similar to the condition, he says.
In conclusion , says Dr Bawaskar, the scorpion venom contains sodium channel stimulators that could rescue Brugada patients in whom this channel is disrupted, at times with fatal results.
Yet, this is not the only scorpion story Dr Bawaskar is associated with. Over two decades ago, he popularized the use of a common anti-hypertension drug, prazosin, as the first-line treatment for scorpion stings. "Although scorpion anti-venom is available, it's only effective if administered within two hours after the sting", he informs.
"Given the conditions in rural India, this is not always possible. Moreover, it's expensive at over Rs 350 for a vial. So, prazosin is a safer bet," says the doctor, 20 years after he popularized the practice in rural India.
Says well-known endocrinologist Shashank Joshi, editor of the medical journal JAPI : "It's now well established that venom toxins can activate or deactivate ion channels. Such research is highly competitive." In an editorial in JAPI's January 2007 edition, Dr Joshi and former Haffkine Institute chief Dr S Sapatnekar had highlighted the range of work being done on scorpion venom. "There is also the promise held out against bacterial drug resistance to antibiotics due to the isolation and characterization of defensin-like peptides with anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties from the haemolymph and venoms of scorpions and spiders," notes their editorial.