Scientists developing universal snake bite anti-venom

Researchers at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine hope to use new technique 'antivenomics' to find solution

Rose Troup Buchanan
Saturday 10 January 2015 11:00
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Snake bites kill 32,000 people, and permanently disables 96,000 more, every year in sub-Saharan Africa.
Snake bites kill 32,000 people, and permanently disables 96,000 more, every year in sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientists are working towards creating a universal anti-venom for all the deadly snakes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) are using a new technique called ‘antivenomics’ to increase the potency of venom extraction, which has traditionally had a low success rate due to the weakness of the venom taken.

A breakthrough could save tens of thousands of lives every year. Snake bites kill 32,000 people, and permanently disables 96,000 more, every year in sub-Saharan Africa.

The head of LSTM’s Alistair Reid Venom Unit, Dr Robert Harrison said: “There are over 20 species of deadly snakes in Sub-Saharan Africa and doctors often rely on the victim’s description of the animal to help them decide which treatment to administer”.

Faced with limited information, doctors frequently decide to give snake-bite patients broad-spectrum, or poly-specific, antivenom to cover all the possible snake species – but this is an expensive option often not available to the poorer subsistence farmers who make the bulk of victims.

This method also increases the chances of serious side effects.

Anti-venom medicines remain limited thanks to the method by which they are extracted – which LSTM hopes to change.

Currently, venom is extracted from several species before being injected – in low doses – into livestock. The animals produce antibodies which are purified from the blood to create anti-venom.

As only small amounts of venom, from different snakes, can be used the end result is very weak. LSTM, in partnership with Instituto Clodomiro Picado, San Jose, Costa Rica and the Institute de Biomdedicina de Valencia, Spain, hopes to change this.

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