Longform

Blue Scorpion Venom: Cuba's Miracle Drug

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"I'm a scorpion hunter!" Perera says with gusto, stretching his back and surveying the rolling hills of Cuba's Santa Clara valley. The duo is one of a dozen or so teams that spend their days scouring rocks throughout the country in search of the misnamed scorpion, which is actually beige and mauve, not blue.

Back at González's nearby house, they add their catch to the dozens already inside a large metal barrel, covered by several rusty slabs. No living creature could possibly escape. "I've been stung 13 times in five years," Perera says. But neither he nor González is afraid. Though the sting of R. junceus hurts like hell and can cause temporary numbness, it's not deadly to humans. "People hate these animals," Perera reflects, genuinely confounded. "I say, 'Bring on the scorpions!'"

Indeed, the scorpion might be one of the animal kingdom's most misunderstood creatures. Of the more than 2,000 species worldwide, only 20 to 30 are dangerous to humans, and in those cases, mainly to small children. Scorpions sting only when threatened.

They've also been used for centuries in healing. "One noticeable example is the use of Mesobuthus martensii in Chinese traditional medicine," says Jan Ove Rein, a senior research librarian at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology and editor of the website the Scorpion Files, which lists more than 25 species with medical applications ranging from pain relief to treatment for seizures and paralysis.

The complete history of how Cuba stumbled upon its curative arachnid might never be known. There's no written account, and the man who discovered the blue scorpion's powers, a biologist named Misael Bordier Chivas, died of a heart attack seven years ago. But the story goes something like this: While testing several snake, spider, and scorpion venoms for a variety of ailments during the 1980s for the University of Guantánamo, Professor Bordier noticed improvement in rats and dogs taking R. junceus venom. He expanded his experiments and soon saw tumors decrease in size.

In 1993, word of his research reached a hotel manager named José Felipe Monzón living on the other side of the country in a town called Jagüey Grande. Monzón's 15-year-old daughter, Niurys, had all but lost a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver and intestines. Unwilling to give up, Monzón traveled to Guantánamo and begged Bordier for some venom. The professor mixed the first human formula for the girl, who appears to be in good health today. (She declined a request for an interview.)

Labiofam approached Bordier several years later. The state firm began tests that confirmed the treatment's safety. Given the promising results, the company decided to make it available immediately. Because government health authorities couldn't approve the medicine for sale so quickly, the company found a loophole: It started distributing it free to anyone who gave informed consent in 2003.

That practice meant a large amount of venom was needed. To get it, Labiofam created a scorpionario in the city of Santa Clara, where today more than 7,000 of the creatures wriggle in individual plastic containers on metal shelves.

"This is where the milking happens," says Manuel Valdés, a veterinarian clad in medical scrubs, latex gloves, and a surgical cap and mask. He's standing inside a small bare room in the Labiofam outpost. In the adjoining acclimatized rooms (71.6 degrees Fahrenheit), every scorpion has an ID number, coded for its region of capture and date of entry. The animals spend 40 days in quarantine — long enough for any pregnant scorpions to give birth and for any potential illness to be detected. Then they enter the venom rotation.

The scorpion twists itself backward as one of Valdés' colleagues uses two long metal tongs to try to steady the five-inch arachnid. "It takes a certain technique," Valdés says. The man aims the tail over a small glass jar sitting in a bucket of ice, and the scientist steps on a pedal attached to an electro-stimulus machine. As a jolt transmitted through the tongs reaches the scorpion, it releases six to 12 "micro-drops" of milky-white venom. "Each scorpion is milked once a month for two years," explains Valdés, who says the average lifespan of R. junceus is ten years. "Then it's released back into the wild to repopulate the species." The venom moves on to Havana, where for years it has been diluted with distilled water depending upon a patient's condition.

As soon as Labiofam began production, news of the free treatment traveled quickly. "I'd arrive at the office at 6 a.m. and there would already be lines of people around the block," Dr. Fraga recalls. Charter flights full of cancer patients started arriving from Europe. Weeks after an Italian journalist aired a video segment about the venom, hundreds of Italians showed up each day. "We never turned anyone away," Fraga says.

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Jean Friedman-Rudovsky