Snakes are notorious for their venomous bites that could usually lead to fatal deaths resulting from haemorrhage, paralysis and immense pain. Many scientists have been searching for newer and better antivenoms to tackle the staggering toll of death and disability caused by snakebites worldwide.

The synthetic chemist at University of California, Jeffrey O’Brien, has recently discovered a compound that could neutralise snake venom, hoping to create a universal antidote to snake venom. He dropped in the venom of a deadly Indian krait with the compound mixed with a test tube full of blood cells and the blood cells were fine.

Photo credit: IAN WALDIE/Getty Images/STAT News
Photo credit: IAN WALDIE/Getty Images/STAT News

Other than O’Brien, there is an emergency physician in San Francisco who paralysed himself to test an experimental drug while a 29-year-old biotech entrepreneur who is dubbed “Denmark’s coolest engineer” has created the first recombinant antivenom and insists science can save lives from venom. An Indian physician also looked for advanced degrees in nanomedicine in Ireland with the purpose to help prevent snakebite deaths in his home state of Tamil Nadu.

Venom could be used to relieve pain

While many are the victims of snakes, a rare southeast Asian species, the long-glanded blue coral snake, is found to be a key for pain relief. Bryan Fry, associate professor at University of Queensland’s School of Biological Science, said the venom of blue coral snake is odd as it specialises in hunting other snakes, being seen as a killer of killers.

“So that's driven the venom away from how other snakes' neurotoxin normally works, into a situation that's much more similar to a scorpion or a cone snail,” said Fry. “The venom targets our sodium channels, which are central to our transmission of pain. We could potentially turn this into something that could help relieve pain, and which might work better on us.”

Photo credit: NATALIA BRONSHTEIN/The Global Snakebite Initiative/STAT News
Photo credit: NATALIA BRONSHTEIN/The Global Snakebite Initiative/STAT News

Hence, experts suggested that the venom secreted by the blue coral snake could treat pain in humans as it targets pain receptors in humans. The pain is said to be dismissed very quickly before the patient would feel anything.

Nonetheless, this species with the largest venom glands is rather rare with 80% of its natural habitat being destroyed. The researchers are also investigating if any of its other slithering relatives produce the potentially pain-saving toxin.

Potential in cancer therapy and preventing blood clots

In addition to relieving pain, snake venom toxins are recognised by many researchers to be important agent for curing many types of cancer. The isolated proteins or peptides and enzymes from snake venom could bind to cancer cell membranes and hinder the migration and proliferation of the cancer cells.

Many studies have shown a complete remission of tumour cells upon treatment with molecules derived from snake venoms. The vast components underlying the snake venom are the major contributors to promoting cancer cell death and immobilising prey. Thus, a new agent from snake venom acting in cancer therapy is expected to be development in the future.

University of California chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien are developing a compound they hope will become a broad-spectrum antidote to snake venom. Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI/STAT News
University of California chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien are developing a compound they hope will become a broad-spectrum antidote to snake venom. Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI/STAT News

On the other hand, doctors have discovered snake venom can be a safer approach for clotting bloods, especially during surgeries, by pairing it with nanofibres. The conventional methods such as heparin and other blood thinners used to reduce bleeding are not the best options as they contain potential serious risks.

Therefore, Jeffrey Hartgerink and his colleagues adopted the enzyme called batroxobin from the snake venom and mixed it with nanofibres to allow blood to coagulate. As there are still some drawbacks such as excessive blood clots due to intereference, further trials are necessary.

The future of snake venom

Considered as the most complex drug target, snake venom is said to be so chemically complex with “a pandemonium of molecules”. The antidote to it is also proving to be frustratingly difficult. As snakebites pose serious threats, particularly in developing countries, the antivenoms are in high demand now in order to save lives of many desperate victims.

Regardless of the antivenom against snakebites or the medical uses of snake venom, researchers warn that there is still a long path to go as the science is still in development thus both old and new technology should be integrated and considered. MIMS

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