By Dr. Becker
According to emerging research, one of my very favorite animals, the opossum, may provide humankind with an effective, inexpensive antidote for snakebites.
Opossums are known for their ability to withstand the bite of almost any kind of snake, and now a team of scientists from San Jose State University has managed to isolate a protein from the blood of the little critters that shows promise as an anti-venom.
Snakebites Are a Global Problem and Expensive to Treat
Poisonous snakebites are a significant problem worldwide, especially in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), recent estimates suggest that over 420,000 venomous bites and 20,000 deaths from snakebite occur each year.
However, WHO warns that those numbers could be as high as over 1.8 million and 94,000, respectively, with the highest number of snakebites occurring in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.1
Snakebite treatment is costly and many people simply don’t have access to it. Most anti-venoms are created by injecting dilute venom into a mammal, which results in an immune response. The animal’s blood serum is then processed and made injectable for snakebite victims.
The injected serum scavenges toxic molecules in the bite victim’s blood. These treatments typically run $100 to $150 per dose, which is more than many people in developing countries can afford.
It’s Not Yet Known Exactly How the Opossum Protein Defends Against Snake Venom
In the San Jose State experiment, venom-exposed mice given the opossum peptide showed no ill effects from the poison, whereas untreated mice died within a matter of hours.
According to Claire Komives, study leader, “Basically, the venom was completely neutralized.”2
The mechanism by which the opossum peptide acts against snake venom is not fully understood. Most snake venom contains more than one toxin, so it seems unlikely the peptide works by binding to a single toxin. Komives theorizes the venom protein may bind to the opossum protein, rendering it no longer toxic.
Newly Discovered Antidote Could Cost Just $1 Per Dose
To create the antidote, the researchers had the protein chemically synthesized. They programmed E. coli bacteria to manufacture the first 11 amino acids of the protein that are known to keep opossums immune to snake venom. Use of E. coli bacteria will also make the antidote inexpensive to produce in large quantities.
The researchers discovered that their antidote protected mice from the venom of the U.S. Western Diamondback rattlesnake, and also the deadly Russell’s viper native to Pakistan.
More research is needed to determine if the anti-venom will work in humans, and the process will have to be refined before the antidote becomes commercially available. But the researchers estimate each dose will cost $1 or less, which is a significantly savings over other anti-venoms.