National Geographic names University of Chicago researcher an "Emerging Explorer for 2010"

May 18, 2010

Zoltan Takacs, PhD, catching a Gaboon viper Zoltan Takacs, PhD, catching a Gaboon viper in the Cameroon rain forest. This viper has 2-inch fangs, injects a spoonful amount of venom, and can swallow a small antelope.

Herpetologist and toxinologist Zoltan Takacs, PhD, a research associate and assistant professor at the University of Chicago, has been named to the 2010 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers. Takacs, who combines his interest in drug development with exotic travel, venomous snakes and professional photography, is one of 14 "visionary, young trailblazers" from around the world making a "significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration while still early in their careers."

The Emerging Explorers each receive a $10,000 award to assist with research and to aid further exploration.

"National Geographic's mission is to inspire people to care about the planet," said Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president for Mission Programs. "Our Emerging Explorers are outstanding young leaders whose endeavors further this mission. We are pleased to support them as they set out on promising careers. They represent tomorrow's Edmund Hillarys, Jacques Cousteaus and Dian Fosseys."

Fascinated from a young age with nature, Takacs captured and bred snakes in his room as a boy (and fortunately recaptured one viper that escaped to his parents' bedroom for a few days). He studied pharmacology in Hungary, then earned a PhD from Columbia University in New York.

Takacs extracting venom from a Taipan Dr. Takacs extracting venom from a Taipan (a member of the cobra family) in Australia. It is a species with one of the most lethal venoms in the world.

He studies animal venoms, usually from snakes. Such toxins "are the source of over a dozen medications," Takacs said, "including drugs to treat high blood pressure, heart failure, heart attack, diabetes and chronic pain." They have evolved to be perfect killers, he said, "but the same snake that can kill you, can cure you."

The purpose of venom is to immobilize and kill. It aims precisely at vital targets, including the connections between nerve and muscle cells, or the circulatory system. Toxin-target contact can cause respiratory paralysis or shock.

If this contact is disrupted, the toxin has no effect. When venom is injected into the snake that produces it, nothing happens. Takacs's team discovered why, by comparing the targets of toxins (receptors) on muscle cells in cobras with receptors in humans and other mammals.

Cobra receptors have a unique sugar molecule that acts as an umbrella, blocking the toxin from binding to the receptor. Remove that molecule and the cobra becomes toxin-sensitive. Add it to a mouse, and the mouse becomes toxin-resistant.

The ability to act on vital targets with that degree of precision makes toxins an ideal model for new drugs. But isolating a specific toxin to fight a specific disease is an extremely tedious, multiyear process, largely due to the small number of toxins that can be isolated from any given venom--until now.

At the University, Takacs with biophysicist Steve Goldstein, recently developed the state-of-the-art "Designer-Toxin" technology allowing the creation of "toxin libraries" with a potential to contain up to millions of toxin variants ready to screen.

"By screening the variants," he said, "you can determine which one will specifically act on the vital target that determines the outcome of a disease. That knowledge is a powerful tool in converting a toxin into a drug."

"Our technology lets you make millions of different keys, try them all at once, and isolate the single one that fits the lock. Problems with side effects occur because drugs are acting on more than one target. With our method, your key will open one lock, but not any others."

He predicts the technology will be useful in developing toxin-based drugs for various diseases, from cancer to circulatory disorders. "The particular toxin we're working with now looks promising for autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, arthritis and diabetes," he said.

Analyzing venom may confine Takacs to a lab, but collecting it takes him to the far corners of the world. "Since I need venom and DNA samples from snakes, their prey and predators, my work requires unconventional travel strategies and ventures into unfamiliar territories--exploration I absolutely love."

A Namib Desert adder A Namib Desert adder in the Namib Desert, Africa. "Its bite has 'unexpected' clinical presentations, yet the venom has never been studied in detail," said Takacs.

Takacs usually travels solo with only a backpack, camera bag, and a tissue-collecting kit, often piloting small planes or riding camels to reach remote destinations. His quest for venomous creatures has taken him to 133 countries. The expeditions are never uneventful.

One of his first, as a teen, landed him in a Bulgarian military jail near the Greek border. He has used military escort against pirates while diving for sea snakes in the Philippines; helicopter evacuation from civil war in Laos; dodged stampeding elephants in the jungles of Congo; survived his due number of bites by an assortment of venomous vipers and venom spewed in his face by a spitting cobra. Repeated exposure made Takacs allergic to snake venom, snake antivenom and snake saliva. Yet he doesn't wear much protective gear. "Gloves limit my fine-motor movement, and I need that," he said. I only wear gloves underwater when catching sea snakes. This is the norm in this business."

"Most of this is fun as long as you remain in control," he says.

He is concerned however, about the loss of biodiversity. "Snakes are not charismatic animals to most people," he admitted. But if you find yourself facing a heart attack, and a drug from viper venom could save your life, "imagine if that snake had gone extinct, that drug wouldn't exist. Once we've erased something that evolved over millions of years, there's no way back."

The other Emerging Explorers are environmental scientist Saleem H. Ali; mobile technology innovator Ken Banks; wildlife biologist Aparajita Datta; agroecologist Jerry Glover; bioarchaeologist Christine Lee; research scientist and engineer Albert Yu-Min Lin; paleontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin; educator and activist Kakenya Ntaiya; electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan; musician and activist Feliciano dos Santos; molecular biologist Beth Shapiro; wildlife researcher and conservationist Emma Stokes;; and marine biologist and conservationist Jose Urteaga.

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