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Emergency Snakebite Treatment in Development

Western diamondback rattlesnake

Western diamondback rattlesnake (H. Krisp, Wikimedia Commons)

14 April 2016. A new treatment for rattlesnake bites, designed as emergency first-aid until reaching a clinic, is being developed at University of Arizona medical school in Tucson. The therapy, still in preclinical stages, is the work of anesthesiology professor Vance Nielsen and toxicologist Leslie Boyer, founder and director of Arizona’s Viper Institute — short for Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response — also part of the university’s health sciences department.

From 7,000 to 8,000 people get bitten by snakes in the U.S. each year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk to most people from snakebites is considered minor, but some people will have an allergic reaction, leading to a small number of deaths, about 5 in the U.S. each year.

The new treatment is designed to help people bitten by a class of snakes called pit vipers that are found in much of North and South America, and parts of Europe and Asia. Pit vipers include venomous rattlesnakes and copperheads that inhabit dry land, and water moccasins and cottonmouth snakes living in water. The snakes have a sensitive heat sensor in a pit between their eyes and nostrils, thus their name, that give them the ability to detect and hunt warm-blooded prey.

Among the effects of pit viper venom is its damage to fibrinogen, a protein in blood that combines with platelets, that makes it possible for blood to coagulate in case of wounds or injury. While many people bitten by pit vipers or other venomous snakes may not have allergic reactions, they can still suffer excessive bleeding when the venom damages fibrinogen.

The therapy being developed by Nielsen and Boyer aims to temporarily restore fibrinogen levels in people attacked by rattlesnakes until they can reach a clinic to receive medical attention. The proposed treatment, still in discovery and early development stages, combines carbon monoxide and iron, which if given soon enough after the bite, can block the effects of venom by bolstering fibrinogen in the blood.

Nielsen earlier published research on the effects of carbon monoxide and iron on coagulation, which led to his interest in developing a treatment for snakebite that addresses the risk of excessive bleeding. While he and Boyer have worked on the new drug for about a year, they already engaged the services of Tech Launch Arizona, the university’s technology commercialization arm to protect their intellectual property and move the discoveries to market.

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