Could a Fish-Eating Snail Save Lives?

April 12, 2018

Professor Mandë Holford is leading efforts to uncover how deadly snail venom can help treat cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, and more.

Professor Mande Holford stands smiling, holding a shell to her ear

The photos on the Expeditions page of Professor Mandë Holford's (GC/Hunter, Biochemistry, Biology, and Chemistrywebsite could easily be mistaken for pictures of friends on a beach vacation. The smiles, island wear, and comradery reflect an easy demeanor rarely associated with serious work. Only when you land on an image of a group of women sitting around a table littered with microscopes, a laptop, and bottles of various solutions do you realize the photos represent something else entirely: research.

Holford and her lab team are in search of snails whose venom holds the potential for drugs that treat cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, and many other diseases and conditions. The researcher, whose work bridges the worlds of nature and biomedical research, is at the forefront of efforts to uncover how deadly snail venom can be used to create life-changing and lifesaving medications. Her groundbreaking work has garnered significant recognition and academic posts. Holford was recently named a New Champion Young Scientist by the World Economic Forum, and in 2013 she was selected for a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. She is also an AAAS Science &Technology Policy Fellow and the co-founder of, a National Science Foundation project to increase the number of women in science.

In addition to her CUNY faculty position, she has a scientific appointment at the American Museum of Natural History.

This August, Holford and an eclectic group of researchers spanning fields that don’t often intermix will meet in Vermont for the inaugural gathering of Venom Evolution, Function and Biomedical Applications, a Gordon Research Conference, which is a biennial conference that Holford co-founded with colleagues from the United States and Australia.

“We’re at a galvanizing point where we’re breaking out of silos like evolution and chemistry and biology to work together,” said Holford of her emerging field of research. “It’s a very interdisciplinary practice, and we all have components we can contribute to venom research. For an evolutionary biologist, it’s, ‘How has this venom evolved over time to allow a snail to eat fish?’ For a chemist, it’s, ‘How do we model this venom to develop a drug?’”  

Discovering the field of venom research was a true ah-ha moment that allowed Holford to bridge her childhood passion for endless discovery at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History and doctoral training at Rockefeller University, where she researched peptides for drug discovery. The two worlds came together when she attended a lecture at Rockefeller given by Baldomero “Toto” Olivera. He talked about venomous snails that ate fish, and the fact that the peptides in their venom arsenal had the ability to block the flow of ions in and out of cells — a mechanism that plays a role in the development of certain diseases and chronic conditions.

Holford loves that her work takes her out in the field, requiring her to do everything from diving to digging in the sand. But she also loves the challenge of the lab. Among her current work is developing a less invasive way to deliver ziconotide (Prialt), the first pain medication developed from snail venom. Right now, the drug has to be delivered through a spinal tap, but Holford and her team are looking to employ nanotechnology to create a new delivery method. They are also working to develop a liver drug.
“Figuring out how these peptides work is our biggest challenge to finding new therapies,” Holford said.

Photo by Ari Mintz