Famous nineteenth century physiologist Claude Bernard, in his publication entitled La Science Expérimentale, described the use of poisons as ‘a means for the destruction of life or as agents for the treatment of the sick’. Indeed, over the years, various naturally-occurring toxins from plants, animals and micro-organisms have emerged as therapeutic agents. Tubocurarine, derived from the South American plant Chondrodendron tomentosum was first used as an arrow poison, and is now used adjunctively in anaesthesia. Captopril was developed from snake venom while digoxin, a plant toxin, has been used for the management of heart failure for several years. Newer medications such as eptifibatide and tirofiban, both used as anti-platelets, also originate from snake venom.
Perhaps the most resounding success comes from the use of botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) in a range of disorders. Its transition from food poison to medical remedy is quite remarkable. Food-borne botulism accounted for many deaths across Europe in the 18th century, where it was termed ‘sausage poisoning’. In fact, the word botulus is Latin for sausage. German medical officer J. Kerner was the first to provide accurate descriptions of food-borne botulism but also to recognise its potential therapeutic uses.