How Snails Can Save Lives: Professor Mandë Holford Discusses Her Research in a TED Talk

Mandë Holford (Photo courtesy of Holford)

Professor Mandë Holford (GC/Hunter, Biochemistry, Biology, and Chemistry) sees snails differently than most of us. For her, they hold the potential to treat a host of diseases and ailments, including cancer. She’s not necessarily interested in garden-variety snails that munch through backyard vegetation. Rather, she studies venomous snails that are capable of killing and eating fish. She has evidence that the venom they use to dine can be effective at attacking liver cancer cells.
In a newly released TED Talk, she discusses “the power of venom — and how it could one day save your life.”

She opens the talk by showing a video of a cone snail that is nearly buried in the sand at the bottom of a tank. Detecting a nearby fish, the snail has stretched out its long, skinny, tubular tongue, or proboscis, with which it stings and subdues the unsuspecting creature. The snail then envelops and swallows its meal.
“In my lab, we study the evolution of venom in these sea snails as a force for good,” Holford says. An advantage of venom, besides its potency, is its precision. Its “toxins work with the precision of a Swiss Army knife,” she explains.
Holford and her fellow researchers in her lab “study cancer as channelopathy." They are “looking for venom components that will target channels that are overexpressed” in cancerous cells compared to normal cells. They are especially interested in liver cancer, which is now twice as deadly as it was in the 1980s.
“In a screen in which we had cervical, neuroblastoma, prostate and liver cancer cells, we found a compound from a terebrid snail that seems to attack liver cancer cells, and only liver cancer cells, and none of the others that were tested,” Holford says.
She explains the chemistry behind this result and makes a plea for preserving biodiversity.
“We're in a race to harness all of this venom goodness before we lose the vast majority of animals on our planet. It's a holistic process. You can't have the therapeutic treatments without having the animals,” she says.

Holford was recently named a World Economic Forum 2020 Sustainability Pioneer.
For more, watch Holford’s TED Talk.

Submitted on: OCT 30, 2020

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