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)

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

A Utah Highway Patrol emblem is pictured as shown on the side of a UHP vehicle. (Utah Highway Patro...

Mary Culbertson

Motorcyclist fatally thrown from Highway 66

A motorcyclist was fatally thrown from the roadway of Highway 66 after attempting to pass another vehicle, UHP says.

58 minutes ago

K9 arrives at The King's English...

Cary Schwanitz, Mary Culbertson, and Brianna Chavez, KSL TV

UPDATE: SLC police give ‘all clear’ after King’s English incident

Salt Lake City Police Department closed off streets late Sunday morning after a bomb threat was posed at King's English Bookshop.

7 hours ago

An astroid sample dropped near Dugway, Utah Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, marking the end of a journey to...

Ashley Strickland, CNN

NASA brings long-awaited asteroid sample to earth, lands it in Utah

Seven years after launching to space, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew by Earth Sunday to deliver a pristine sample collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. It’s NASA’s first time returning an asteroid sample from space.

9 hours ago

A warning sign at Willard Bay State Park warning visitors about  potential dangers in the water. (K...

Brianna Chavez

Pet owner asking others to stay cautious when taking their pets to local reservoirs

Despite the end of summer, a Brigham City woman is calling on pet owners to stay cautious when taking their furry family to revisors.

21 hours ago

Traffic halted on I-15 north of St. George due to the chase...

Michael Houck

Police chase closed I-15 traffic north of St. George, suspect in custody

A driver of a stolen truck gave police a chase in Washington County Saturday afternoon. 

24 hours ago

The car used by the two juveniles that gave police chase. (Heber City Police)...

Cassidy Wixom, KSL.com

2 juveniles arrested after allegedly leading police on 140mph chase in Wasatch County

Two juveniles were arrested after attempting to evade police in a high-speed chase that reached 140 mph, police said.

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Design mockup half in white and half in color of luxury house interior with open plan living room a...

Lighting Design

Lighting Design 101: Learn the Basics

These lighting design basics will help you when designing your home, so you can meet both practical and aesthetic needs.

an antler with large horns int he wilderness...

Three Bear Lodge

Yellowstone in the Fall: A Wildlife Spectacle Worth Witnessing

While most people travel to this park in the summer, late fall in Yellowstone provides a wealth of highlights to make a memorable experience.

a diverse group of students raising their hands in a classroom...

Little Orchard Preschool

6 Benefits of Preschool for Kids

Some of the benefits of preschool for kids include developing independence, curiosity, and learning more about the world.

rodeo contestant on a saddle bronc...


Get Ready for the Days of ‘47 Rodeo!

The Days of '47 Rodeo is a series of events everyone in the family can enjoy, with world-class rodeo contestants vying for the gold medal.

Electric LED Lightbulb Change In Light At Home...

Lighting Design

How to Know When to Upgrade Your Lighting

This guide explores indicators that suggest it’s time for a lighting upgrade with tips to make an informed decision when you’re ready to buy. 

Brunette guy in headphones playing games on his desktop computer...

PC Laptops

Looking For a New Computer? Use This Desktop Buying Guide

Choosing a new desktop computer can come with a lot of questions, so we created this desktop buying guide.

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