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Rattlesnakes fighting cancer? Researcher combing Utah mountains to study snake venom

Jun 9, 2023, 8:12 AM

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah — Hiking up a hillside in Cottonwood Heights Thursday, Eric Januszkiewicz embarked on a hunt, hoping for a good find.

“It’s tricky, tricky finding them,” he explained, as he looked around and probed under rock crevices and into bushes, using a metal pole with a hook on the end.

He said timing is everything when it comes to finding rattlesnakes. So is the weather.

“That’s just lucky if you come across one,” he said.

Most people wouldn’t use the word “luck” when it comes to seeing the specific rattlesnake species he was searching for.

“I’m here trying to catch Great Basin rattlesnakes. That’s a particular species that I’m studying,” Januszkiewicz explained.

That Ph.D. student from Colorado has been making his way from southern Utah up to the Salt Lake Valley to look for Great Basin rattlesnakes. Januszkiewicz, who drove out from Greeley, Colorado, started his trip near St. George. After searching the southern part of the state, he made a stop in central Utah.

Eric Januszkiewicz searches for Great Basin Rattlesnakes on a hillside in Cottonwood Heights (KSL TV)

Januszkiewicz got lucky and caught a young Great Basin rattlesnake near Kanosh. He brought her out of a special snake-holding bucket.

Relatively small for a rattlesnake, she slithered as Januszkiewicz gently lifted her with his hooked metal pole to keep her from wandering too far.

“This one is really calm,” he said. “It knows we’re no threat to it.”

It helps that he loves to work with the creatures.

“I’ve always kind of been fascinated and I got the opportunity to work with them in my undergrad,” he explained. He studied a fungal disease in timber rattlesnakes. “And so that just kind of got me hooked.”

And now Eric is hooked on what snake venom could potentially be used for in the worlds of science and medicine — including potential uses in fighting cancer. He’ll bring the snakes he collects in Utah back to the Mackessy Venom Analysis Lab at the University of Northern Colorado, where they’ll milk the venom from the snake. They take good care of the snakes, he said, and the milking process is painless and easy.

The Great Basin Rattlesnake Eric Januszkiewicz caught in Kanosh (KSL TV)

Januszkiewicz will then analyze and study the venom.

“So, looking at all the toxins that are within their venom, that make up their venom, and looking at geographic variation,” he explained. “A lot of species will show a pretty large degree of variation within their venom.”

He’ll see what makes the toxins he studies in the venom of the Great Basin Rattlesnakes found in Utah unique. Januszkiewicz explained that it can help in finding effective ways to treat snakebites.

As for the cancer-fighting component, he explained how they’re finding toxins that could potentially target certain cancers in the body.

“All these toxins, the way they work, they’ll target certain proteins in the body, various tissues. And so, you can actually utilize that for good,” he explained.

Januszkiewicz said a toxin can target a certain protein type that is potentially overexpressed in cancer cells.

“So, a very specific part of the venom, you could conjugate potentially an anti-cancer drug to it and target certain cancer types,” he said. “So there’s a lot of utility pharmacologically with these venoms.”

There’s a lot more research that still needs to be done, he said, and it’s still in its infancy.

But he explained how rattlesnakes in Utah are super useful to science and could be used in the medical field down the road.

“Venom is just very fascinating once you really get into it,” he said.

Januszkiewicz plans to finish his weeklong Utah Great Basin Rattlesnake-collecting trip in Spanish Fork Canyon Friday, before heading back to Colorado.

Eric Januszkiewicz holds a Great Basin Rattlesnake he’ll use for venom research (KSL TV)

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Rattlesnakes fighting cancer? Researcher combing Utah mountains to study snake venom