Scorpion venom ‘fetches  million a litre’, but is it a fool’s gold rush?

Scorpion venom ‘fetches $10 million a litre’, but is it a fool’s gold rush?

The idea of a farmer milking animals for a living doesn’t sound very remarkable, and in Turkey, that’s indeed what Metin Orenler is doing.

The difference though is Mr Orenler is milking scorpions for their venom, which is reported to fetch millions of dollars per litre when sold for use in cosmetics and medicines.

Mr Orenler’s “farm” houses around 20,000 scorpions of the genus Androctonus turkiyensis, which are kept in transparent boxes in a building resembling a scientific laboratory, according to a report from Reuters.

Each scorpion produces about 2 milligrams of venom daily, which is harvested or milked using a pair of tweezers and tongs, before being dried ready for export.

Scorpion venom ‘fetches  million a litre’, but is it a fool’s gold rush?
Metin Orenler is milking scorpions similar to this Androctonus australis.Their venom is worth up to $10 million per litre.(Getty images: noegrr)

A litre of the venom is worth about $US10 million, Mr Orenler told Reuters. It’s previously been described as the most expensive liquid on the planet.

“We breed the scorpions themselves and also milk them,” Mr Orenler said.

“We freeze the venom that we obtain as a result of the milking we do, then we turn it into powder and sell [it] to Europe.”

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Kill Or Cure: The Story Of Venom

While scorpion farming might sound bizarre, Mr Orenler’s operation is far from unique.

Scorpion venom providers have been popping up around the world, lured by the promise of big dollars.

Some cosmetics companies are now adding scorpion venom or its extracts to their products, claiming near-miracle-like results from their concoctions.

But while some of the claims made by cosmetics companies are unproven, the potential medical uses of extracts from the venom are considered scientifically very exciting.

Epilepsy, stroke, irritable bowel potential 

Volker Herzig, an associate professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, has by his own estimation one of the most diverse collections of arachnid venoms on the planet.

Like other arachnid venoms, scorpion venoms contain a lot of different peptides and proteins that can be isolated and examined.

“I have around 160 to 170 different scorpion venoms now,” Dr Herzig said.

“They might have toxic effects on some animals like insects, but then they might also have beneficial effects on some animals like humans.”

A scorpion at night with tail raised.
Australia’s reputation for venomous species doesn’t apply to scorpions. No known native species are considered deadly.(Getty Images: Totajila)

His team are studying his venom bank to test for potential uses in biological controls against insects and parasites in the agricultural and veterinary space.

They’re also working with research partners to investigate human diseases that could be targeted by venom extracts.

The exciting quality of arachnid venoms is that they are very potent and specific in their action, Dr Herzig said.

“Say a protein is overactive in a certain disease — if you can then find a [venom] toxin that can block against that particular protein, it can be very effective.

“We’ve [also] spent a lot of time screening our venoms against a sodium channel involved in pain; we’ve found if you block that channel, it can block the pain.”

He’s also found components in the venom that may prove effective in the treatment of epilepsy and irritable bowel syndrome.

“My former supervisor [also] found a component that may be effective against stroke.”

A fool’s gold rush?

Like Dr Herzig, Dorothy Wai from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences is looking at medical uses for venom from both scorpions and sea anemones.

Specifically, she’s looking at venom extracts that can help people suffering from autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.

“Kv1.3 is a protein target that is expressed on the surface of immune cells,” Dr Wai said.

“My research focuses on a peptide from scorpion venom that can inhibit the receptor on immune cells; blocking it can stop the immune cell from becoming overactive.”

Dr Wai said she had never been contacted by a venom farmer. Dr Herzig, however, has.

“I’ve been contacted by a number of places, from India for example. They’ve contacted me saying they’ve got this number of scorpions at their farm and they’ve been trying to sell me venom,” he said.

“I believe a number of other toxinologists have been contacted as well.”

But he doesn’t buy their products.

“The problem is you can never be sure of the source,” he said.

Dr Werzig also doesn’t collect scorpions from the wild, as getting permits and finding enough animals poses a great challenge.

Instead, he travels to Europe himself and milks venom from pet owners.

“In Europe, there is a very large scene of people keeping spiders and scorpions as pets,” he said.

“You visit a person and he’s got 200 spiders and scorpions in his basement.”

A scorpion in a tank.
There’s a “very large scene” of keeping scorpions and spiders as pets in Europe.(Getty Images: vovashevchuk)

Dr Herzig also isn’t after huge volumes of venom from one species, like the one being milked at Mr Orenler’s farm in Turkey. Instead, he’s after diversity.

“The more molecules you can screen against a particular target, the more likely you are to find something effective against that target.”

Dr Wai’s team don’t collect venom at all. Instead, they’ve got the DNA for the venom sequenced, and can reproduce what they need for their research.

“It’s usually easier to synthesise the peptides in the lab, rather than try to get enough from the venom.”

So if it’s not the researchers, it begs the question — just who is buying all this farmed venom?

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