Universal anti-venom for snake bite planned by researchers

A universal life-saving anti-venom against the bite of every deadly snake is all set to become a reality.

Scientists from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are attempting to develop the first universal anti-venom in sub-Saharan Africa.
LSTM has more than 400 snakes in its institute using venom milked from up to 80 of the reptiles each week.

Snake bites kill an estimated 30,000 people a year in the region.

The current need to give many vials to treat a patient not only increases the risk of side-effects but often makes treatment unaffordable to the rural, impoverished subsistence farmers that are at greatest risk.

The current limitations to multi-species anti-venoms arise from the process used to make them. Venom is extracted from several species before being injected in low doses into horses or sheep. This does not cause illness in the animals bit induces an immune response causing the animals to produce antibodies. These antibodies are then purified from the blood to create anti-venom.

Using multiple snake species, however, means that the animals only make a small amount of antibody to any one species, and the resulting anti-venom is quite weak.

Dr Robert Harrison, the lead scientist for the research, said “Not only do we expect that our anti-venom will be cheaper, and safer and much more effective than anything else, but it will be able to be used anywhere south of the Sahara”.

“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,” says Dr Harrison.

“The preferred option therefore is to give a broad-spectrum or poly-specific, anti-venom to cover all the possible snake species that could be responsible. Because these treatments are generally not very effective against any one species, the doctor therefore administers many vials. However, each dose carries a risk of serious side effects and this risk increases with each additional vial.”

The research team at LSTM, and their collaborators at the Instituto Clodomiro Picado, San Jose, Costa Rica and the Institute de Biomdedicina de Valencia, Spain, have devised a plan to vastly improve the potency of poly-specific anti-venom using a new technique called ‘antivenomics’ which will significantly expand the effectiveness of the anti-venom, covering all of the most medically-important snakes of sub-Saharan Africa.

Researchers will use the proteins from all of the collected venom to make the universal snake bite treatment. They will add stabilizing chemicals so that it can be stored in the African heat.