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Biting back: the search for a snake bite antidote

UCI chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien have developed a broad-spectrum snake venom antidote UCI chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien have developed a broad-spectrum snake venom antidote Steve Zylius
13 May
Snake bites remain a major danger for people in developing countries, with over 4.5 million bites recorded annually. Could a recent breakthrough be the first step towards a universal anti-venom?

For many rural and agricultural communities around the world – particularly in India and sub-Saharan Africa – there are few more immediate daily threats than that of venomous snake bites. More than 100,000 deaths are recorded annually, with a further 2.7 million people suffering crippling injuries.

One major problem is economics; developing anti-venoms for each individual snake species is time-consuming (often involving the collection of antibodies from horses in Mexico or Australia which have been previously injected with the venom) and, therefore, expensive. With a lack of affordable healthcare, the people most in danger of experiencing a poisonous snake bite often have limited access to the expensive procedures – potentially up to $100,000 – necessary to save their lives in the aftermath of a bite.

Step forward the ‘nanodote’. Developed by chemists at the University of California, Irvine, this anti-venom utilises revolutionary nanotechnology to recognise proteins familiar to a wide variety of snake venom, and, by absorbing the toxins contained within, is capable of stopping them from rupturing cell membranes, and consequently preventing severe injuries and fatalities. ‘Current anti-venom is very specific to certain snake types,’ explains UCI doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien, lead author of the latest research.

‘Ours seems to show broad-spectrum ability to stop cell destruction across species on many continents, and that is quite a big deal.’

As well as being universally effective across many different types of snake bites, it is relatively cheap to produce, and far easier to store. ‘Our treatment costs pennies on the dollar and, unlike the current one, requires no refrigeration,’ insists O’Brien. Trials have successfully slowed the spread of venom from poisonous species such as cobras, kraits, and pit vipers, while the possibly of using the same technologies to minimise the effects of spider bites, as well as scorpion and bee stings, is also being explored.

This was published in the May 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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