x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An opportunity to incubate R&D

An R&D project to incubate antivenin in camels is an opportunity for the UAE, which may have been lost.

About one quarter of a million people around the world suffer from snake bites each year. Many cases are fatal, with people across Asia and Africa being the worst affected. An antidote, however, could be quite close to home.

As The National reports today, a UAE-based project has discovered that camels' antibodies could be used to treat victims of snake bites, but it has had to be put on hold because of a lack of funding.

Last year, the joint venture by researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK and at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai began using camels as incubators for a new antivenin. The antivenin is produced by injecting a toxin into camels and then harvesting antibodies, in serum form, which can counteract the effects of a poison.

There are significant potential benefits of using camels, instead of the usual sheep or horses, as "antibody factories": the process is cheaper, has fewer side effects and the product does not have to be refrigerated.

Despite the positive early results, financial realities have halted the project. This is a setback for antivenin research, but more broadly for the UAE's admittedly nascent research and development culture.

It is even worse news for those who stand to benefit from antidotes. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 snake bites each year result in 125,000 deaths. Of the 3,000 species of snakes worldwide (and 400 venomous species), this research was focusing on African adders.

The incidences of snake bite in the UAE are admittedly rare. The National has reported several cases in Ras Al Khaimah, including a fatality earlier this year. Antivenins could be developed for toxins produced by indigenous snakes, but in the meantime UAE research would be benefitting thousands of people worldwide.

The UAE is only just starting to become a centre for scientific excellence thanks to many collaborations with established foreign institutions. It would be a shame if such efforts were not supported financially. And in this instance, the national development goals are in line with saving lives.