Scorpion venom is some of the most toxic on the planet and yet it has a handful of surprising medical applications — from use as immunosuppressants to cancer research. The problem is that one small mistake in the extraction method can have fatal consequences.
“The extraction of scorpion venom is a very difficult task and usually takes at least two experimenters,” Mouad Mkamel, a researcher from Ben M’sik Hassan II University in Morocco, said in a statement. “There are numerous risks including potentially deadly scorpion stings and electric shocks from the stimulators used to extract the venom.”
To mitigate the risk to humans and avoid harm to the scorpions, Mkamel and a team of researchers from the university designed a scorpion-milking robot. Dubbed the VES-4, the robot is lightweight and mobile so it can be used in the lab and out in the field. “It is designed to extract scorpion venom without harming the animal and to provide more safety for the experimenters,” Mkamel said, adding that the robot makes venom extraction quick and safe.
That is in contrast to current milking methods which may be hazardous to humans, harmful to the scorpion, or simply unreliable overall. Instead of requiring a human hand, which may be stung, the robot clamps down on the scorpion’s tail and stimulates it electrically, which causes droplets of venom to be released. The process is designed to not puncture the scorpion’s venom gland or injure its abdomen. While conventional methods require at least a couple people to ensure safety of experimenters and arachnid alike, the robot may be remotely controlled by a single researcher.
Scientists found a handful of applications for scorpion venom and a few potential uses as well, according to Wired. A study in 2011 showed that venom may be used to fend off malaria. Two years later, researchers demonstrated that venom works as a painkiller in grasshopper mice, which might help researchers design painkillers for humans. And in the future, venom may be used in cancer therapies by attaching to and illuminating cancer cells, doctors can better locate and assess the disease.