Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 11 July 2020

Synthetic anti-venom could save thousands of snake bite victims

Researchers in Bangalore discover breakthrough in antidote to the bite of an Indian cobra

An African desert horned viper. Alamy
An African desert horned viper. Alamy

Thousands of lives could be saved thanks to a breakthrough in the development of snake antivenin, making it more readily available around the world.

Scientists are poised to transform the way antivenin – commonly referred to as antivenom – is mass produced after discovering an alternative method to milking snakes.

In early research by the SciGenom Research Foundation in Bangalore, DNA mapping of an Indian cobra was used to find the genetic code to produce serum that neutralises a poisonous snakebite.

“We believe the Indian cobra reference genome and the analysis presented will facilitate innovations in antivenin development,” researchers said in a report published in the Nature Genetics journal.

The production of antivenin has not changed since the late 1800s, until now.

Traditional methods involve extracting venom from a snake, which is then injected into a horse. Goats and sheep are also sometimes used.

Antibodies then produced in the horse’s blood are harvested so an antivenin serum can be extracted.

New techniques to develop large quantities of antidote are similar to those that produce insulin medication for diabetic patients.

Researchers in Bangalore mapped out a cobra’s 38 chromosomes to identify its venomous toxins, pairing them with the genes they originated from.

An expert extracts venom from a rattlesnake at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Carl De Souza / AFP
An expert extracts venom from a rattlesnake at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Carl De Souza / AFP

The genetic sequence of each poison was placed into bacteria, where it was tracked to see how it interacted with synthetic human antibodies.

The antibodies that stuck to the toxins were selected to form an effective antivenin.

Researchers hope an effective synthetic alternative could be available within three years.

About 100,000 people die from snake bites each year, with almost half a million more losing limbs in rural areas of India and Africa where antivenin is not available.

Although recent research focused on the Indian cobra, similar techniques could be used to develop other serums to treat snake bites from other species.

A vial of antivenin can typically cost more than $2,000 (Dh7,500).

Current techniques can be laborious, with a pint of coral snake venom taking three years to extract from more than 69,000 milkings.

The desert horned viper ranks as the most abundant venomous snake in the Arabian peninsular and the most common spotted by UAE pest controllers.

As Dubai expands into more desert areas, sightings are becoming increasingly common.

That has encouraged specialist education from the Sharjah wildlife conservation department for Rentokil staff in Dubai to safely handle snakes.

“We don’t exactly know what kind of venom is kept in stock at Rashid Hospital, but we know the most common venomous snakes we come across here in the UAE are the desert vipers,” said Dinesh Ramachandran, a Rentokil safety manager.

A viper bite causes serious swelling, acute pain and excessive bleeding or clotting, depending on the blend of toxins.

Victims can also experience nausea, abdominal pain, sweating, exhaustion, kidney failure and heartbeat irregularities.

The first two hours after the bite are crucial to ensure antivenin is quickly administered.

“We were given advice on what to do in the event of our staff getting bitten during an extraction,” Mr Ramachandran said. “Because of the extra call-outs we were receiving, the training was necessary – but no one has been bitten up to now.”

Updated: January 8, 2020 08:01 PM



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