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In studies with mice implanted with human breast cancer cells, a 60 to 70 per cent reduction in the growth rate of the breast tumours and a 90 per cent reduction of tumours that spread to the lungs was found in rodents treated with the protein. However, it will take at least 18 months before the venom protein will be ready to test on patients.
"We have a long way to go from mice to the female of the human species," Prof Markland told colleagues in Boston, at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. He said: "We are in the process of genetically engineering the venom. We would have to milk every snake in the world to get the venom we would need for a trial."
Earlier this year there was great excitement about the efforts to block a process called angiogenesis, the development of new blood vessels, which is exploited by a tumour to obtain a supply of nutrients and growth factors, a disposal route for its wastes, and a route for cancerous cells to spread.
The copperhead protein acts by inhibiting the development of new blood vessels to nourish the tumours and by putting tumour cells into a "suspended state of animation". Prof Markland said the dual action helped prevent the spread of cancer, a process called metastasis.