UK scientists are manipulating the production of anti-venom, in a bid to create a universal biological protection against bites from all the deadly snakes in sub-Saharan Africa. Matthew Stock reports.
The puff adder is one of sub-Saharan Africa's most deadly snakes. The venom extracted here is being used to create a potent new anti-venom that could treat bites from every poisonous snake found in the region. Dr. Robert Harrison is leading the research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, where they've collected 21 of the region's most lethal snake species - 450 animals in total. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. ROBERT HARRISON, HEAD OF VENOM RESEARCH UNIT AT LIVERPOOL SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, SAYING: "32,000 people are dying from snake bite every year in sub-Saharan Africa. But it's not only that; other people who survive the bite - about 100,000 of them - are living with severe disabled limbs or legs, just really very disabling conditions." Snake bites have a devastating impact on impoverished communities in sub-Saharan Africa, where families often live on less than a dollar a day. Current broad-spectrum anti-venoms cost about 140 dollars per vial. But they are weak and often require multiple doses to achieve a cure; something most people are simply unable to afford. The team from the Venom Research Unit are developing a cheaper, more effective treatment, using an innovative new technique they've dubbed 'antivenomics'. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. ROBERT HARRISON, HEAD OF VENOM RESEARCH UNIT AT LIVERPOOL SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, SAYING: "So what we're going to try and do is take our existing anti-venom which we made for Nigeria and has been used in Nigeria; which is effective, and it's cheap and it's safe. Now we're going to make it more effective against all the other snakes of sub-Saharan Africa. And we're going to do that by identifying the proteins that are unique to all the other species. And taking these unique proteins. i.e. different from the Source Scale Viper, the Puff Adder or the Spitting Cobra, and add that to the venoms of the original three." Another hurdle they hope to overcome is making sure the anti-venom is still effective after being stored at room temperature, without the need for refrigeration. They anticipate that by mid-2018 they will be able confirm if the new anti-venom, when stored at room temperature for at least a year, is effective against all the snakes of sub-Saharan Africa.