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Scientists Use 'Antivenomics' to Develop Universal Anti-Venom for Snakebites

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Snake venom is currently being extracted from several snakes to create anti-venom, a crucial and potentially life-saving antidote for individuals such as farmers who get bitten by these deadly reptiles.

The current practice of creating anti-venom involves extracting venom from several species of snakes before these are injected in low doses into animals. These, in turn, produce antibodies that are purified from the blood to create the antidote.

This manner of venom extraction, however, has its disadvantages. Because only small amounts of venom from different snakes are used, the resulting anti-venom tends to be very weak.

Fortunately, this may soon change as scientists are working to produce better antidotes that could help thousands of people who get bitten by snakes every year.

Scientists from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) are working toward the development of a universal anti-venom that can be used for the bite of all of the snakes in sub-Saharan Africa with the aid of a new technique dubbed antivenomics.

The technique can help improve the potency of extracting snake venom and thus the potency of the antidote. Scientists hope that this breakthrough could help save thousands of lives per year.

In sub-Saharan Africa, snake bites cause the death of 32,000 people per year. Some of those who manage to survive likewise suffer from serious effects with snake bites permanently disabling 96,000 people in the region annually.

Robert Harrison, LSTM's Alistair Reid Venom Unit head, said that there are more than 20 known species of lethal snakes in Sub-Saharan Africa and treating snake-bitten victims can be challenging.

Doctors often depend on the description of snakebite victims of how the animal looks like to help them choose which treatment to give.

"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,” Harrison said.

Having only limited information on hand, however, doctors tend to give patients broad-spectrum anti-venom so as to provide an antidote for the bite of all the possible species of snake.

Such option, though, is expensive and comes with increased odds of serious side effects. This option is also not often available to poorer farmers who make up the majority of those who get bitten by snakes.

Researchers from the LTSM, Instituto Clodomiro Picado in Costa Rica and the Institute de Biomdedicina de Valencia, Spain look forward to changing this.

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