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Nanotech Gel Designed to Treat Snake Bites

Western diamondback rattlesnake

Western diamondback rattlesnake (H. Krisp, Wikimedia Commons)

8 March 2017. A team from University of California in Irvine developed a snake bite treatment that in lab tests stops venom more effectively and at lower cost than current antidotes. Researchers in the lab of chemistry professor Ken Shea published their findings in December 2016 in Journal of the American Chemical Society (paid subscription required).

Shea’s lab studies synthetic chemicals, in this case as polymers formulated into nanoscale particles that can neutralize the toxins in snake venom. The UC-Irvine team cites data showing some 4.5 million people worldwide are bitten by snakes each year, with more than half suffering serious injuries, leading to an estimated 100,000 deaths. Many of the snake bite victims are farm workers in low-resource regions of India and Africa.

Current treatments require intravenous infusions at hospitals or clinics that can cost up to $100,000. In addition, many treatments target specific types of venom or species. The UC-Irvine researchers, led by doctoral student and first author Jeffrey O’Brien are seeking a more readily available and less expensive alternative that can treat a wide range of toxic bites.

In their solution, O’Brien and colleagues address a group of phospholipase A2 or PLA2 proteins found in a number of venomous snakes including cobras and kraits in Asia and Africa, and pit vipers in North America. These enzymes break down the outer membranes of cells enabling the rapid spread of toxins in the body. The team applied techniques developed earlier to treat bee stings, which mix synthetic antidote chemicals formulated into nanoparticles for a gel material that can be easily transported and spread on affected areas.

The researchers in this case synthesized antibodies usually generated from venom injected in horses and extracted from their blood, a process that can take weeks and is illegal in the U.S. The team formulated the antibodies into nanoparticles and mixed the particles in hydrogels, networks of material that contain primarily water, but maintain enough substance to form into 3-D gelatinous structures.

Tests in lab dishes with human blood serum show the hydrogel binds to the PLA2 proteins, preventing them from breaking down red blood cell membranes. The tests show the toxins are absorbed into the nanoparticles, and sequestered from blood cells, preventing the toxins from causing harm.

“Current anti-venom is very specific to certain snake types,” says O’Brien in a university statement. “Ours seems to show broad-spectrum ability to stop cell destruction across species on many continents, and that is quite a big deal.”

The researchers say they learned since publication of the study their process could also be applied to scorpion and some spider bites. The university filed for patents on the technology, and the lab is seeking funds for clinical trials and product development. The U.S. military that financed early stages of the lab’s research is seen as a major potential market, particularly since snake bite kits can be made at a fraction of the cost of current antidotes.

“The military has platoons in the tropics and sub-Saharan Africa, and there are a variety of toxic snakes where they’re traipsing around,” notes Shea. “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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