What inspired you to become a scientist? And more specifically, one who researches animal venoms?
It started as a childhood passion. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, and as a child, I took home toads, lizards and snakes. During my early high school years, I took home my first pet viper, and not long after, I also had my first snake bite where I gave myself antivenom. Despite the inherent dangers, I was completely captivated by venomous snakes and their allies. I found it astonishing how it’s possible that venom can be injected into a living, breathing creature which can then drop dead in as short as a minute. This drew my interest further to study pharmacology.
What does it take to become a scientist-explorer searching for the deadliest animals?
I love what I do. My education background includes studying pharmaceutical sciences in Hungary then obtaining a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Columbia. I continued my research at Rockefeller University and at Yale and was a faculty member at the University of Chicago. Today, I conduct independent biotech research to identify drug leads from toxins. Aside from having a formal education, it helps that I’m extremely passionate about my work -- others would call it crazy! For me, it is an intellectual challenge and satisfaction that is particularly rewarding to be engaged in. I have been bitten by venomous snakes six times and am now allergic to both venom and antivenom, yet I’m still 100 percent passionate about my work.
How do you prepare for your research trips? What do you bring with you to survive environments and the most unknown parts of the world?
I have traveled to 147 countries, from oceans to rain forests, so what I pack is selected from a master checklist of hundreds of items, such as my hammock to sleep in, to the various needles required to extract animal tissue samples. Still, I am quite simple when it comes to my personal travel gear. Once I am on the ground, I love to team up with local people. They have a wealth of knowledge I can learn from: how to get water from plants in the middle of rain forest, how to escape from forest elephants at night or from a horde of 100+ peccaries, or how to find snakes by listening to birds chirping. My ThinkPad is my office while I am in the field. Electricity is not always easily accessible, but my ThinkPad has never failed me even when facing electric surges of rural Africa.
Where are some of the most unexpected parts and situations of the world you have traveled to for your research?
There are so many, it’s hard to rank. I’m often in awe by the last tropical frontiers on Earth, such as the Amazon, Congo and remote patches of the Pacific. The untouched natural beauty is extremely rewarding. In terms of unforeseen situations, once when I was in Congo with my Baaka pygmy friends, I found a Gaboon viper. Its head, sporting two-inch long fangs, was so big that I couldn’t fit into my dedicated snake tubes, nor into a water bottle. I had to gently sit on the back of this highly venomous snake while my assistant extracted a tiny tissue sample from the snake's tail.
Can you talk a little bit about the science behind your research? What was the state of the “industry” and how has it advanced? Where do you hope it’ll end up?
My goal is to make new medication from animal venoms. Venom toxins have some of the most potent and selective molecules in the world and are one of the best templates for designing new therapeutic agents. Today, there are 20 medications made from animal venoms, taken by 40 million patients around the world. One of the most prescribed high blood pressure and heart failure drugs in the U.S. are derived from snake venom. Other current uses of venom are as medications for heart attack, thrombosis, diabetes and chronic pain, yet there are still 20 million toxins left in the world that are completely unexplored. I co-invented the "Designer Toxins" technology, a toxin-genomics platform to screen millions of toxin variants for those with the highest promise to treat diseases. We designed new leads for the potential treatment of autoimmune disorders. We are innovating on nature's already powerful toxins to push them ahead for drug development and other biotech solutions.
In some ways are you racing against time?
Exactly. There are 150,000 venomous animal species. Snakes are only a small fraction of this group, but traditionally they played a pioneering role in venoms-to-drugs innovation because they yield large amounts of venom targeted against the vertebrate body. With today's advanced genomic and proteomic technologies, we are at a stage where we can explore venoms from the tiniest spiders and marine snails. Unfortunately, the rich ecosystems that house these creatures are prime targets for heavy destruction by mankind. We could lose unidentified toxins without ever having a chance to learn what they may hold for science and medicine.
Knowing the risks of your line of work, what keeps you motivated?
I have a passion for research and exploration. I don’t necessarily like risk, but I try to understand the risk and be in a position to reduce it to a workable minimum. On a larger scale, I’m driven by the vision of deriving medicines and clinical diagnostics from animal venoms. That's a huge credit to nature!
What are your words of wisdom for others who are inspired to pursue a career or exploration into your type of research?
Follow your passion and dreams and think outside of the box. Make sure you enjoy pursuing your career. One of the best investments you can make for your life is getting a solid education. Listen to and understand, even if you do not follow, the smart advice you’re given, whether it’s from a donkey trader or an Ivy League grad. When traveling, remember you are a privileged guest with responsibilities. Finally, let your dreams lead the exploration and let the exploration lead your dreams.
How does technology enable you to bring your research to address and conquer today’s medical issues?
Technology helped my dreams come true. I’m very specific about the technology I use, and I will only commit to a particular solution when I am convinced that it is the best option available for performance, reliability and portability.
I’m a big Lenovo fan. From the lab to home to travel, I have been using products from the Think line for the past 20 years because it meets my expectations and offers a wide range of accessories that complement my ThinkPad. Docking stations, multi-monitor solutions, and other extensions are particularly helpful for me when I am traveling, and I love being able to dock my laptop easily without any changes to my system preferences no matter what environment I am in.
For more information
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For more information about Dr. Zoltan Takacs, visit www.zoltantakacs.com.