Steamboat Springs In its raw form, rattlesnake venom is a milky yellow liquid designed to kill anything it enters. But in a University of Northern Colorado science lab, the proteins and enzymes hidden inside the venom are being extracted and eyed for their potential to heal.
Steamboat Springs High School senior Madeleine Traverse spent six weeks of summer 2010 in the lab in Greeley studying the intricacies and the composition of the venom that varies even between subspecies of rattlesnakes. She was one of many researchers who are working to determine whether the proteins in the venom can benefit the medical community.
“The first week, I had to sit down with a stack of research papers and really study,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about rattlesnakes.”
Traverse then researched how a particular protein in the snake venom interacts with a protein in a bite victim to interrupt the clotting of blood. In nature, the venom protein usually causes the victim of the rattlesnake bite to bleed to death. But Traverse said scientists and doctors are trying to determine whether proteins in the venom could be used to treat and prevent deadly ailments like blood clots.
“We’ve barely even scratched the surface of snake research,” Traverse said Tuesday in her high school science lab. “In their arms race with birds and mammals, each snake has developed proteins that make up their venom that is lethal.”
She conducted her research as a student in the Frontiers of Science Institute program that paired 30 Colorado high school juniors and seniors with graduate students and college professors on special projects.
Traverse found out this month that her work will be incorporated into papers being published in the science journal “Toxicon” and the “Journal of Comparative and Integrative Biology.”
“It’s a big deal to get published in a paper like this,” high school science teacher Cindy Gay said. “A lot of people don’t get published until graduate school.”
Traverse said she never considered herself to be a “snake person.” She also didn’t anticipate she would ever have to work alongside large venomous snakes.
But before the end of the six-week research project, she eagerly went herping, or reptile searching, with graduate students hoping to bag their next specimens.
“There’s so much cultural stigma with snakes, and going into it, I had my own trepidation of dealing with snake venom,” Traverse said. “It’s not something you would think of as being conducive to any research that could help people at all.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com