Can science rob snakes of their deadliest weapon?
Even in a test tube, snake venom is terrifying.
Mix a few beads of venom from a deadly Indian krait with blood cells and, within an instant, the clear liquid will turn bright red as toxins blast through the cells, rupturing their membranes. One look tells you more than you want to know about the excruciating pain of a snakebite.
That’s why synthetic chemist Jeffrey O’Brien was so startled, and so excited, when he tried lacing a test tube full of blood cells with a compound he had created to neutralize snake venom. He dropped in the krait’s secretions and waited. The solution stayed clear. The blood cells were fine.
That work, in a chemistry lab here at the University of California, Irvine, could, perhaps, lead to a universal antidote to snake venom. And it’s just one of several new high-tech efforts — coming from an unlikely cast of characters far outside the pharmaceutical mainstream — to tackle the staggering toll of death and disability caused by snakebite worldwide.
Those in the hunt for newer, better antivenoms include an emergency physician in San Francisco so keen to push ahead in his research that he had himself paralyzed in order to test an experimental drug; a 29-year-old biotech entrepreneur so hip he’s been dubbed “Denmark’s coolest engineer”; and an Indian physician who sought out advanced degrees in nanomedicine in Ireland so he could help prevent snakebite deaths in his home state of Tamil Nadu.
- Health Care