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No snakes required! Synthetic antivenom could be a lifesaver

Getting bitten by a venomous snake is bad news. But the problem doesn’t just end at the snake bite. Antivenom is expensive, not always available in plentiful supplies, and requires a trained health care professional to administer it. That means that, even in scenarios in which a person could receive lifesaving or life-altering treatment following a bite, this is by no means guaranteed.

A Danish startup called Serpentides, spun out of the University of Copenhagen, is making a new type of antivenom that’s easier to produce, significantly lower in cost, and could be used by anyone, even if they don’t have medical training. According to its creators, it could represent a crucial step toward a universal antivenom since it neutralizes a toxin that’s found in 75% of all venomous snakes.

“Current antivenoms are the only treatment today against envenoming, and these antivenoms are all antibody-based,” Brian Lohse, an associate professor in the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen, told Digital Trends. “The antibodies are made by immunizing animals like horses, using venom from living venomous snakes. The vast majority of companies and institutions work on different varieties of antibody-based antivenom including a version that can be made in living cells. However these are all made for injection in the veins and demand hospital settings, and so far cannot be administered without a doctor, and also cannot be injected at the bite site.”

The “serpentides” developed by the researchers are synthesized entirely chemically. That means no snake farm, no horse farm, no snake handlers, and no complicated and expensive purification steps. Serpentides are peptide-based, and can therefore be made in any existing chemistry lab, making them cheaper to produce. The peptide-based antivenoms could be carried in the form of an EpiPen-type device and used immediately when a person is bitten.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 400,000 people per year suffer serious consequences as the result of snake bites, while around 140,000 die. This solution could therefore have an important step forward.

“We are in the process of founding [our company at present,]” Lohse said. “We aim to have around five different peptide-based antivenoms in our portfolio, targeting different snake [toxins]. Currently, we have tested in mice, and this is looking promising as stated in [our] patent.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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