An international consortium of experts is working to develop a universal cure for snakebites, which affect nearly three million people each year, according to The Guardian.
Using technology similar to what was used to discover HIV antibodies, the scientists are working to create an antidote using “humanized antibodies” instead of conventional animal-based cures which date to the 19th century.
Since these can lead to adverse effects in some patients, they must be administered in a hospital, which in places like Africa and India where snakebites are common, can mean a long journey.
“The conventional method of producing antivenom to treat snakebite involves purifying antibodies from venom-immunized horses or sheep and injecting this into patients. This can cause adverse side effects and, because of that, the antivenom has to be administered in a hospital setting,” said Professor Robert Harrison, head of the center for snakebite research and interventions at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
“That means that victims have to get to hospital from their communities, which are usually several hours away, and in that time there is usually a progression of very severe pathology, which can sometimes lead to severe disfigurements or death.”
The consortium of venom specialists leading the effort includes scientists from the US, Britain, India, Kenya, and Nigeria. UK international development secretary Rory Stewart has announced plans to contribute £9m in aid to fund the research.
“In parts of Africa and Asia, snakebites are a daily threat, causing life-changing disabilities or – in the worst case – death,” according to Stewart. “More than 80,000 people die every year from snakebites and because of the huge variety of snake venoms, people often do not get the treatment they need in time, if at all.”
Around 250 species of snake have harmful venom, and traditional antivenoms are geared specifically to each species.
The new method originated with Dr. Devin Sok, an American HIV scientist. When he realized that the same methods used to locate strains of anti-HIV antibodies could potentially be used to develop a snakebite cure, he reached out to Harrison.
A total of 138,000 die each year from snakebites, and 400,000 are permanently disabled. In many areas, victims are too far away from hospitals to seek treatment, and turn instead to traditional healers, according to Ben Waldmann, snakebite program manager for Health Action International:
“If communities are empowered and treatment options improved, it follows that the role of traditional healers will be reduced in favor of an effective and reliable health system.”