EYEAFRICA TV: Liverpool, UK: Scientists in Britain are working on a new anti-venom that could prove effective against all snakes in sub-Saharan African and India and dramatically reduce the number of snakebite fatalities.
Humankind has long had an innate fear of serpents and, with anti-venom being largely unchanged since the early part of last century and the best medicines only protecting against a small number of the 250 different venomous snakes, the danger remains grave.
However, Professor Robert Harrison from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), says his team is working on finding a solution to a problem that claims tens of thousands of lives each year.
“We are trying to develop a completely new treatment for snakebite, effective against all of the snakes in sub-Saharan Africa and India. In sub-Saharan Africa, 32,000 people are dying of snakebites. In India, 46,000 people are dying from snakebites, that’s half the number of people that are dying from HIV,” he said.
Current anti-venom is made by firstly extracting venom from a snake, before a very small, harmless dose is injected to a horse. This stimulates the horse’s immune response to make antibodies to the venom which are then harvested from its blood.
In order to get a high enough concentration of these antibodies, horses must be injected several times a year over a period of several years – a long and expensive process not easily available in the parts of the world that need it most.
However, everything changed for Harrison when he received a call from a staff member at the International AIDS vaccine initiative in San Diego to collaborate not on AIDS but on snakebites.
“He explained very quickly that they had technical platforms that they had developed for their HIV vaccine research that he thought we could use very usefully for snakebite,” said Harrison.
The HIV researchers found that some humans develop broadly neutralizing antibodies that prevent infection by the majority of HIV strains.
“What we are hoping to be able to do is to engineer antibodies so that they can broadly recognize lots of these different toxins, no matter which snake bites a person, so they can be neutralized in a generic manner,” said Nick Casewell, professor and research fellow of the Wellcome Trust, a London-based research charity.
It’s hoped the new universal anti-venom will require lower doses and will not produce the adverse reactions that antibodies from animals can cause.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identified 2030 as the date by which they’d like to halve snakebite deaths around the world and Harrison is optimistic that the recent breakthroughs will help this target be reached.
“I think if there is more investment like the Wellcome Trust, if there are more groups getting involved delivering the many different things that the World Health Organization (WHO) strategy involves, then we have a chance, but I do think it’s ambitious. What I don’t doubt is that there are groups around the world who have that commitment and who will try their very best to deliver,” he said.