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Caption: UCI chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien have developed a broad-spectrum snake venom antidote. Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Deadly snakebites may soon be easier and more effective to treat thanks to a group of chemists from the University of California, Irvine.

The chemists have developed a way to neutralize deadly snake venom in a less expensive and more effective way than traditional anti-venom.

The researchers focused on protein families common to many serpents to show that they could halt the worst effects of cobras and kraits in Asia and Africa, as well as pit vipers in North America. The team synthesized a polymer nanogel material that binds to several key protein toxins and kept them from bursting cell membranes and causing widespread damage.

Existing treatment requires slow intravenous infusion at a hospital and costs up to $100,000. However, the antidote only halts the damage inflicted by a small number of species.

“Current anti-venom is very specific to certain snake types,” doctoral student Jeffrey O'Brien, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Ours seems to show broad-spectrum ability to stop cell destruction across species on many continents, and that is quite a big deal.”

Worldwide, an estimated 4.5 million people are bitten by snakes annually, 2.7 million suffer crippling injuries and more than 100,000 die, most of them farmworkers and children in poor, rural parts of India and sub-Saharan Africa with no or insufficient healthcare.

While there are only about five snakebite deaths annually in the U.S. the treatment could be beneficial for dog owners, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

According to chemistry professor and senior author of the paper Ken Shea, venom is a “complex toxic cocktail” that evolved over millennia to stay ahead of prey’s own adaptive strategies. However, the venom is absorbed onto the surface of nanoparticles in the new material and is permanently sequestered there.

Because the “nanodote” uses readily available, nonpoisonous components it has a long shelf life and costs far less than the current antidotes. The research teams have patents pending and are seeking public and private funding to move forward with clinical trials and product development.

Shea’s group also used similar methods to develop a synthetic antidote for bee melittin—the ingredient in stings that can kill people who have an allergic reaction.

“The goal is not to save mice from venom and bee stings but to demonstrate a paradigm shift in thinking about solutions to these types of problems,” Shea said in a statement. “We have more work to do, and this is why we're seeking a fairly significant infusion of resources.”

The U.S. Department of Defense's research arm financed the first phase of the laboratory work.

“The military has platoons in the tropics and sub-Saharan Africa, and there are a variety of toxic snakes where they're traipsing around,” Shea said. “If soldiers are bitten, they don't have a hospital nearby; they've got a medic with a backpack.

“They need something they can use in the field to at least delay the spread of the venom.” 

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