Turns out rattlesnakes can do much more than scare the bejebus out of you.

Greeley is home to a unique laboratory that houses hundreds of snakes from all around the globe. While many people would balk at spending time in that secure lab, Professor Stephen Mackessy, of the University of Northern Colorado's School of Biology, and his student researchers, are in that lab every day, collecting venom from live snakes, and making big strides in cancer research.

It turns out that venom, which has long been killing animals of all sizes, can also be used to attack cancer cells, as well.

Mackessy and research students in the lab are busy collecting and analyzing the different venom from all the snakes on hand to study the possible uses of its compounds against cancer. Research has found that each snake venom has its own strengths and weaknesses; it can be highly effective in killing one type of cancer and not at all effective with another type. The research is also looking at which protein structures of venom can be mixed with other compounds to ensure that if it is used to kill cancer cells, it doesn't kill the cancer patient. 

The analysis lab is the first of its kind to research the use of venom to fight cancer. The study is just in the early phases, but it could move on to clinical studies if the data supports it. The hope is that because venom binds to specific receptors, it may someday be used to directly affect cancer cells, unlike more conventional methods that attack all cells. 

mackessy in the lab
Mackessy goes to work in his lab. Courtesy of UNC News Service

This isn't the first time that Mackessy and his team of assistants and snakes have provided a solution to a tough challenge. A few years ago, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police needed an expert to analyze samples recovered from a crime scene, including a dead snake, shed snakeskin, and samples from the victim. The UNC team set about determining the species of snake and possible venoms involved in the crime, and it helped lead to suspect identification and an arrest. 

“It is highly unlikely that the investigation would have been successful without the hard work of Dr. Steve Mackessy, and his team at the University of Northern Colorado,” said Sgt. Doug Trousdell of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who worked with Mackessy, in a statement to the UNC News Service. “His conclusions were invaluable to the police in advancing the investigation and invaluable to the community in ultimately coming to understand what caused Aleka Gonzales’ death. We thank him, and his team, for their substantial contributions to this complex and difficult file.”

You can check out more about the Venom Analysis Lab and its work on the UNC website.