Venomics Project, in its final stages, aims to obtain up to 5 therapeutic molecules from animal venoms

The Venomics Consortium in Copenhaguen

Venomics Project is an ambitious European project which focuses on studying animal venoms to identify potentially therapeutic molecules. It faces its last phase in which 4,000 peptides will be analysed and screened. From those 1-5 molecules of pharmacological interest are expected to be detected. If this search is successful, these molecules could be the basis of new medicines to treat pain, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, among other diseases.

To finalise the details in this end stage, the Venomics consortium, made up of university laboratories, and leading small- and medium-sized enterprises from Belgium, Denmark, France, Portugal and Spain, meet today in Copenhagen (Denmark). The previous meeting took place on 24 June 2014. Since then, researchers have obtained around 4,000 peptides, which will be screened in the second half of 2015. “Obtaining such a large number of peptides by this approach, which integrates all the omics technologies, is a milestone that has never been reached in any other previous project”, states Rebeca Miñambres, Head of the Transcriptomics Area of Venomics Project and Head of the Projects Area of Sistemas Genómicos, a Spanish company that devised the innovative technology (de novo transcriptomics) that has allowed completely unknown molecules to be identified and analysed.

The French research centre CEA Saclay (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission), the Project Coordinator, and the Danish company Zealand Pharma, which leads the development of peptide drugs, will start screening the molecules from all the material produced ever since Venomics began (at the end of 2011). A maximum of five of pharmacological interest are expected to be obtained.

Frosty Loechel, Director of Molecular Pharmacology at Zealand Pharma, explains that “our work consists in optimising and validating a panel of functional assays to trace the library of peptides generated in Venomics. This is how we will identify peptides with immunomodulatory capacity (with therapeutic properties for autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis or arthritis), or modulatory peptides that respond to insulin (to develop antidiabetics)”.

Venomics is a unique pioneering work not only for the quantity of venoms identified, but also for the collection of generated peptides, and for setting up RNA sequencing techniques that did not exist before. The novel aspect and huge challenge of this process has consisted in working with a wide natural biodiversity, and analysing organisms for which no genetic knowledge was previously available. A team of scientists travelled to different places in the world to obtain samples of venoms. All in all, 203 animal species have been used (of varying sizes, from insects measuring millimetres to snakes, tarantulas and large venomous lizards). From these species, 393 biological samples have been collected (221 venoms from glandular tissue and 172 from saliva), which have permitted the sequencing of 218 transcriptomes (performed by Spanish company Sistemas Genómicos) and 174 proteomes (carried out by Liege University (Belgium).

From the technical perspective, Miñambres stresses that de novo transcriptomics is a technology with a huge potential to discover new RNA molecules or transcripts. It “opens up an enormous field to discover new medicines”. Besides, “the incorporation of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies allows millions of sequences to be obtained which are then assembled by bioinformatics processes”. Edwing De Pauw, Head of the Proteomics Area of the Venomics Project, adds “by combining innovative transcriptomics and proteomics technologies, we can generate reliable peptide sequences”.

However, the Venomics Project will go one step further than simply identifying several molecules with pharmacological potential over forthcoming months, the culmination of 4 years work. It will also create a bank with some 20,000 sequences. This will be the largest database of toxin sequences created to date, and could well be the starting point to develop innovative medicines (of strategic interest for the pharmaceutical industry). Then last, but not least, there is the technology and methodology that have been performed during this project, which will suppose a great advance for the scientific community to investigate animal proteins.

The Venomics Project has a budget of 9.1 million euros, of which 6 million euros are subsidised by the European Community through its 7th European Union Framework Programme for Research and Development (Health), 2011-2015. Project members are CEA Saclay, Marseilles University (France), Liege University (Belgium), Sistemas Genómicos (Spain), NZY Tech (Portugal) and Zealand Pharma (Denmark).

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