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How Killer Snails Could Save Your Life

Mandë Holford searches for deadly sea snails and harvests their venom in her lab. Peptides in snail venom can be used to treat pain and slow the growth of cancerous liver tumors. (Left: Photo by Denis Finnin/American Museum of Natural History; Right: Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)

Mandë Holford searches for deadly sea snails and harvests their venom in her lab. Peptides in snail venom can be used to treat pain and slow the growth of cancerous liver tumors. (Left: Photo by Denis Finnin/American Museum of Natural History; Right: Pierre Laurent/Courtesy of Mandë Holford)

In a curious twist, snails — venomous, killer sea snails — are helping scientists make some incredible biomedical advances. 

Dr. Mandë Holford is the head of the Holford Lab in New York City, but her line of research often means she’s taking nighttime scuba dives in seas and oceans across the globe.

“The whole point of our lab is to try to change these snails from agents of fear into agents of hope,” Holford said on this week’s Nerdette podcast.

“Yes, a snail can kill you,” she added. “But a snail can also help you! In various, various ways. And that’s what our lab is investigating: The power of these snails and the venom that they have to transform organisms and to transform lives.”

Holford is also an associate professor in chemistry at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at City University of New York, with scientific appointments at the American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medical College. 

She told Nerdette host Greta Johnsen how snail venom can help relieve pain and treat cancer, how she’s giving back with a line of science-based board games, and how it feels to be on a “Top 100” list that includes Beyoncé. Below are highlights.

How a snail might help save your life

Mandë Holford: The way that snails can save your life is through the compounds that are found in their venom. … We’re extracting individual components that are found in the venom, and these things are very good at manipulating signals related to diseases and disorders that humans have. Two areas that we concentrate on is pain and cancer. 

So we’ve found novel peptides in our snails — peptides are the components in the venom — we found novel ones that seem to be treating pain in ways that are not addictive, which is important. And we’ve also found our first peptide that we’ve actually patented in the lab that seems to be having an effect on stopping liver tumors from proliferating. 

Greta Johnsen: That’s insane!

Holford: Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. Who would think a snail could have so many outputs? [Laughs.] Another reason why you should love nature and save our planet.

On promoting science through a series of games

Holford: Knowledge is power, and science is the way to unleash that power. And so it shouldn’t be something that we shy away from. It should be something that we try to champion kids into wanting to use and to play with. 

As you’ve heard before, children are naturally inquisitive. All you need to be a scientist is to be inquisitive, and you’re born with the tool that makes you so. ...

We have to let kids know that science is fun. We need female champions, too, to demonstrate that you don’t have to be a specific gender to be a scientist, you don’t have to be of a specific race, or a specific culture. We’re all born with the tool that a scientist needs, and that’s a brain. And we’re all born with a functioning brain. So it’s like the cheapest entry-level career that you can have, because it costs zero. [Laughs.]

On being #84 on a list of the 100 most influential African-Americans aged 25 to 45

Johnsen: What is it like to be on a list of people that includes Beyoncé?

Holford: I know! I was so surprised when I saw it. And actually, I didn’t know about it until I was in a meeting and I came out of the meeting, and I checked my phone and my Twitter thing had all of these notifications, and I was like, “What’s going on?”

And then I saw the picture and I was like, “My God! There’s Serena and Beyoncé and all of these great people that are doing amazing things, and then there’s Mandë!” [Laughs.]

It’s amazing but you never think — I don’t think of myself on their scale. Serena’s a powerhouse. I think she is phenomenal for what she’s doing for women and athletes, and what she’s doing now for working moms and illustrating all of the pitfalls and joys that happen. 

And Beyoncé similarly, another powerhouse for setting the stage of what can be done if you focus and you work hard and you put your head to the grindstone and just keep grinding. 

“Stop interrupting my grinding” is one of my go-tos that I tell people who are bugging me. [Laughs.] I’m like, “You’re interrupting my grinding and Beyoncé said not to.” [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.

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