Bryan Fry becomes temporarily paralyzed more frequently than most people. His nervous system has frozen up from a snakebite not once but twice in his career. Both mishaps required trips to the hospital for anti-venom treatment.
Overall, the experiences weren’t that bad, he says, especially when compared to the excruciating pain a stingray—the same kind that killed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin—delivered when it drove a venomous barb bone-deep into his thigh. “Being paralyzed is a hell of a lot more fun than bleeding out of my ass,” he assures me. The latter injury resulted from a run-in with a Stephens’ banded snake armed with anticoagulant venom. The bite also caused blood to seep out of his eyes. “It was my stigmata moment,” he jokes.
Wait, so what does this guy do for a living? (And does it come with an adequate health plan?) Fry is a venomics expert, a risk-taker with a purpose.
The Australian scientist, who has a PhD in biochemistry, travels the world to collect venom from snakes, spiders, flies, octopuses, and other creatures. He isn’t interested in tracking down western diamondback rattlesnakes or other species whose toxic brews have long been known to science. Fry ventures into remote and sometimes politically unstable areas in search of understudied animals, such as the octopus with antifreeze venom that he and colleagues discovered in Antarctic waters. His goal is to identify novel toxins that might be used in new drugs.
Fry believes that finding profitable uses for venom—the vital components of which can be synthetically reproduced—is key to saving the ecosystems the deadly creatures inhabit. “It’s conservation through commercialization,” says Fry. “You can’t predict where the next biologically derived drug is going to come from.” Destroy habitat and you potentially destroy untapped pharmacological resources worth billions of dollars.
There’s a long history of drugs derived from nature. Most come from plants (hello, aspirin), but Fry points to several developed from venom, including the blood-pressure medication captopril, based on snake toxin, and the diabetes drug (and potential weight-loss treatment) Byetta, a synthetic form of a protein found in the saliva of the Gila monster.
Currently, Fry is exploring a promising skin cancer treatment derived from the venom of an olive sand snake that he milked himself. So far in this quest, he’s sampled about 30,000 snakes and gotten bitten 27 times. In the lab, Fry identifies individual proteins in venom samples and tests the promising ones on living cells to find the best candidates for drug development.
Fry was only four years old when he announced that he wanted to study venomous snakes, but his appreciation of toxins goes back even earlier, to age two, when he suffered from spinal meningitis. “My very first memory is being torn apart by toxins, strapped down to a hospital bed,” he recalls. The illness left him deaf in one ear—a permanent reminder of how dangerous these substances can be.
While snakes were his first love, Fry’s research has broadened to “anything with venom.” He’s braved frigid Antarctic conditions to capture and sample octopuses, and journeyed deep into the Amazon in search of spiders.
Sometimes, he says, the most dangerous part of his job isn’t found at the tip of one of his subjects’ fangs. Fry has endured violent cyclones on the ocean (the edge of a storm is a fabulous place to catch venomous sea snakes, he says), survived the bombing of a safe house in Pakistan, and even talked his way out of being kidnapped in Colombia. When the armed men on motorbikes surrounded his crew, Fry showed them his bags of venomous snakes, and the would-be captors let them go.
Although he’s often on missions in far-flung locations, Fry doesn’t have to go far to find danger. On a recent evening walk around his property on an Australian mountaintop, he collected nine venomous snakes in two hours—one of which he needed for research. He also captures assassin flies—a slender, inch-and-a-half-long insect with enough venom to kill a mouse—outside his front door.
This week, Fry will hit the road again. He’s heading to Brazil's Snake Island (yes, that’s really what it’s called). Accompanied by a Discovery Channel film crew, he’ll explore the place with the highest concentration of venomous serpents anywhere in the world—one per square meter, on average. “I’ve always wanted to go,” says Fry. “It’s my mecca, though probably someone else’s hell.”
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