Dr. Fawzia Fahim's Reseach on Cancer-Killing Cobra


The cobra’s regal image, like that of the Pyramids and the Sun, is among the Pharaonic symbols of ancient Egypt and its constellation of mystical deities. Snakes have also long been part of the symbolism of medicine; even the escutcheon of the profession bears a serpent wrapped around the staff of Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing.

For centuries, the spitting cobra has cut short the lives of unlucky desert travelers in Upper Egypt. However, in a medical research laboratory on the outskirts of Cairo, in the mid-1980s of the 20th century, determined biochemist, Fawzia Abbass Fahim, sought a beneficial use for deadly cobra venom in cancer treatment.

Dr. Fahim completed a two-year research project, the results of which were reported at an international medical conference in Prague, proving that a venom extract from this species of cobra has a devastating effect on the membranes of common cancer cells, ripping them apart and then attacking the reproductive structures within.

It is worth mentioning that cobra venom is not the first highly toxic substance to be tested in cancer treatment. Thousands of toxins are employed worldwide as scientists seek to find the balance between cancer cell destruction and preservation of normal tissue. By this standard, Fahim’s initial work was noteworthy; her research at Ain Shams University was a particularly Egyptian contribution to the cancer treatment search.

The Spitting Cobra has one of the most highly-developed venom systems among the cobra species, allowing it to spit its poison with great force and accuracy at targets up to 2.7432 m to 3.048 m. Herpetologists believe the venom spitting is designed mostly to frighten predators; the poison is harmless if it hits the skin, but if the venom strikes the eyes of a victim, the result is painful conjunctivitis and blindness.

The cobra’s bite is often fatal; victims appear to be in respiratory distress. The venom almost immediately attacks the nervous system and induces shock and convulsions. Fahim’s cobras were rounded up more for a US-funded research project on how snake venom and other natural toxins attack kidney and liver functions.

In the initial research supervised by Dr. Fahim in cooperation with her young colleagues, they fractionalized and separated Spitting Cobra venom into four extracts arranged by atomic weight, one of which proved to be more lethal than all the others. It was this extract, dubbed simply Fraction III, that Fahim and her understudies were anxious to employ in further research.

Fahim’s group documented photographically the dramatic impact of the venom on cancer cells. Slides taken from the abdominal fluids of the mice control group showed masses of cancer cells bunched tightly together with well-formed cell walls and interior structures. The venom-treated cells appeared to have been exploded; “the major effect is demonstrated as disruption of the cytoplasm accompanied by marked rupture in the cytoplasmic cell membrane”, Fahim’s paper concluded.

Fahim’s research greatly inspired one of her colleagues in Cairo who has decided to search for some salutary use for the venom from another of Egypt’s well-known denizens: the Egyptian scorpion.

Dr. Fahim received her BSc from Cairo University, Egypt, in 1954; and her Master’s of Science in Chemistry from Cairo University in 1962. She received a governmental grant from the United Kingdom, October 1962 until June 1965, where she attended Birmingham University and obtained her PhD. She is author and co-author of over 80 scientific papers. In 1975, Fahim became an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Ain Shams University, and in 1980, she became a full Professor, a position she still holds to date.



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