Many of us would find the idea of working with hundreds of centipedes on a daily basis horrifying rather than fun; yet, that’s what Randy Mercurio handles each day at Centipede Venom Pharm (CVP), the company he started in 2012. The company’s main purpose is to supply high-quality centipede venom to researchers for medicinal applications, and that’s what makes the work rewarding for Mercurio.
“What I see as the best part of all this work at CVP is that perhaps someday many lives will be relieved of pain, improved, and even saved as a result of all the high-quality venom we provide for medicinal research,” he says.
Expanding our knowledge about centipedes, which have been around long before the dinosaurs, is another main perk for Mercurio. “In fact,” he says, “starting to create CVP back in 2012 led to a discovery that centipedes may have evolved in the Caribbean.” (http://www.mapress.com/j/zt/article/view/zootaxa.4111.1.1/5766) He does admit that there are certain aspects of centipedes that people may find creepy, but adds that if people took the time to expand their centipede knowledge, they might feel differently.
“Indeed, most people are squeamish about centipedes,” he says. “They are fast, venomous, and have lots of legs … what’s not to like? I think most people would change their minds about them if they took a little time to learn about them, because they are very amazing invertebrates and we have really just begun to understand them in a comprehensive way.”
With centipede venom research, the key obstacle is the availability of venoms for research purposes. CVP works to meet that need by using a special process to extract the venom from its large collection of centipedes, a process that includes a sub-zero freezer and a lyophilizer to preserve the venom. Mercurio says the number of species they have on hand in their facilities in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, varies, but is usually around a dozen. Most of these species are found in the pet industry. Those centipedes come from a variety of locations, including North America, Africa, Asia, and South America.
“Some of them, as adults, are small, on the order of two to three inches, while some of the largest I’ve had exceeded ten inches,” Mercurio says of the centipedes’ sizes.
Extracting venom from the larger centipedes definitely requires some care.
“Appreciating a centipede from a distance is different from obtaining the venom from one that is over ten inches long,” he explains. “I always treat them with respect and have a special procedure to protect me and them, so neither of us get hurt. For me, working with them up close on a regular basis is truly rewarding.”
As for the research that venom supports, Mercurio says that most of it “is directed toward discovering novel organic compounds, including proteins, that have very specific chemical interactions with the nervous systems of organisms.” While Mercurio says that his clients don’t usually get into the specifics of their research with him, he does know that some of his recent clients’ work has focused on gated ion channels, while others are aiming to develop drugs to treat pain, disease, or other ailments.
CVP also supports researchers by providing them with centipede expertise.
“Some researchers may be interested in knowing more about centipede taxonomy, anatomy, and biogeography, or their natural history and how it relates to their venom,” Mercurio explains. “However, others may perhaps benefit from us raising specific species to facilitate a particular type of project.”
He adds that his expertise as a chilopodologist (someone who studies centipedes, which are scientifically called chilopods) is what makes CVP unique from other centipede venom suppliers.
“I think there might be other facilities that offer centipede venoms, but I don’t think they have the same kind of knowledge we have about centipedes, the diversity of species we usually have on hand, or the collaborative capabilities,” he says.
While Mercurio handles most of the duties of running CVP, his wife, Jacquelyn, helps both directly and indirectly, and he has some friends who help him find centipedes in the marketplace when he’s strapped for time. He lists three main challenges to the work: 1) caring for hundreds of centipedes on a regular basis, which is a part-time job for him on top of working a regular full-time job; 2) finding centipedes available in the market when needed because the research interest is growing; and 3) the fact that even large centipedes produce a rather small quantity of venom.
He handles the first challenge simply by diving into the work and getting it done, while the second challenge he’s addressed by researching the breeding of centipedes in captivity in order to maintain a steady supply of species that are difficult to find.
“Furthermore, it will just be a matter of time before more research is undertaken on centipede venoms, when it becomes well-known that these animals have unique cocktails of useful compounds in their venoms that can be put to use for their medicinal properties,” Mercurio says. “Third, in order to get more venom in a timely manner, you simply need more centipedes, which cycles back to [challenge] number one.”
In terms of future plans, CVP is currently working on a new website so customers can easily order centipede venoms. It’s expected to be live by the end of the year.
“Meanwhile, we are always looking for ways to improve our business and continue to study all aspects of centipedes to expand our relatively poor knowledge of this incredible group of myriapods,” Mercurio adds.
Those interested in learning more about Centipede Venom Pharm are welcome to contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the current CVP website at https://sites.google.com/site/centipedevenompharm/.