In a laboratory at the University of Utah's Research Park, venoms of spiders, snails, snakes and scorpions are being analyzed for their potential to treat stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer's and other diseases.

The research isn't by a group of witch doctors concocting healing potions, but by serious scientists at Natural Product Sciences Inc. trying to tap mother nature's pharmacy and a multi-billion dollar market of drugs for cardiovascular and central nervous system disorders.NPS is not alone exploring what nature has to offer in treating disease. Scientists and pharmacists throughout the country are trotting the globe interviewing tribal medicine men and reexamining plants, animals and insects to restore proven ancient remedies and unlock new ones.

"Nature can produce more useful compounds than chemistry and pharmacology can," NPS president and chairman Hunter Jackson said. "Nature has more to offer. Over evolution it has generated a huge inventory."

Jackson claims his firm ranks at the top of spider and cone snail venom research, a distinction that helped NPS land a joint research contract with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. NPS is also working with agrichemical firms to investigate agricultural applications of venoms as insecticides.

"We want to know how natural venoms work and see if there are any applications to human diseases," said Jeff Ives, assistant director of medicinal chemistry research at Pfizer's central research facility in Groten, Conn.

Ives said NPS is the only company he knows of that obtains the raw material and performs preliminary isolation and testing processes for research on spider and other natural venoms.

Like most scientific start-up companies, NPS began as an academic research project with commercial potential lurking in the back of the scientists' minds.

In 1984, U. medical school faculty members Jackson and NPS co-founder Tom Parks had teamed up for research into central nervous system disorders. The pair had previously met at Yale University, where they earned their doctorate degrees in psycho-biology.

While looking for compounds that would affect impulse transmission from the brain, Jackson and Parks came across a previous study suggesting spider venom's paralyzing effect on a prey's nervous and muscular system could be just what they needed.

"We got some good results and found them (the venoms) extremely potent and specific" in what they affected, Jackson said.

But the transition from an idea to test results actually wasn't so quick and easy. To test the effect of venom you have to find some venom, which took some research itself before Jackson and Parks found a source in southern California through a magazine ad.

Although the lack of supply was a barrier at first, it actually gave Jackson and Parks a reason to go into business raising and milking spiders for their own research and selling the venom to other researchers around the country to finance the new venture.

NPS abandoned its venom vending business late last year after signing a contract with Pfizer, but the firm still raises spiders as well as scorpions. Snake and marine snail venom is ordered from sources locally and around the world.

"Besides my deathly fear of snakes, it's expensive from an insurance point of view to keep venomous snakes on hand," Jackson said.

Parks and Jackson know spiders, snakes and scorpions make for interesting conversation and photography, but they prefer not to dwell on the company's in-house creature farm of 8,000 spiders, a few scorpions and a food source of flies and bugs. The pair fears that kind of publicity distracts from the real purpose of NPS' business: Finding new molecules that will aid in developing new pesticides and drugs.

Diseases within the nervous and cardiovascular systems have varying causes, but many degenerative illnesses result from an overdose of neuro transmitters, which transmit signals between nerve cells, or calcium molecules, which regulate contraction of cardiovascular muscles entering cells. Because venoms paralyze the action of neuro transmitters and calcium, the venoms could act to arrest the resulting illness.

The theory of blocking neuro transmitters and calcium as a way of treating disease is not new and a $3- billion market exists of drugs treating the after effects of cardiovascular diseases. Ives added that the existing billion-dollar market in psycho-therapeutic drugs indicates the potential of new drugs for currently untreatable ailments of the central nervous system.

But most of the drugs now on the market are mainly manufactured from chemicals designed in the laboratory, while natural sources offer a greater variety of chemical designs never thought of before, Jackson said.

He explained that venoms have an extremely complex makeup of many components, with each component having its own unique purpose and effect. NPS' research focuses on separating and identifying each component and running tests on how an individual toxin in a multi-toxin venom affects the transmission of impulses within the nervous and cardiovascular systems. Such tests are run, for example, by applying a drop of a venom component on a tiny slice of brain tissue and observing how the venom affects the tissue's neuro transmitters.

Jackson said therapy for central nervous system disorders is a last frontier and the medical as well as commercial gains are great when considering no drugs exist to successfully treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's, stroke and other debilitating diseases. Applications to cancer and other fatal ailments are also possible, he said.

But it's not possible for a small company to take a pharmaceutical product from the research stage to the store shelf on its own. Research alone requires expensive equipment and manpower NPS doesn't have, which is why a collaborative agreement with a partner like Pfizer is ideal.

While NPS obtains the venoms, breaks them down and performs the initial assays, Pfizer conducts further tests to determine how a safe, effective drug could be manufactured from the toxin. The contract also provides royalties to NPS from any commercial development.

Ives said the collaborative agreement with NPS began only six months ago and its too early to tell if researchers are close to finding a new miracle drug.

"On average it takes about eight years to take a new drug to market," Ives said.

Meantime, as NPS earns the bulk of its $1 million annual revenue from its Pfizer contract, the young privately-held Salt Lake company, which is also funded through a Small Business Innovation Program grant and shareholder equity, is working out additional agreements with other companies to apply its venom research to agriculture.

Jackson said NPS is working out an agreement with an out-of-state lab that could develop a process of inserting genes that produce for toxins fatal to certain insects into plant seeds, allowing the crop to manufacture its own natural insecticide.