"Nanodote" Developed at UCI May Make It Cheap and Easy to Survive Snakebite

Neutralized! Snake venom takes a hit as UC Irvine Professor Ken Shea (right) and grad student Jeff O'Brien develop a nano-particle gel to prevent deadly venom from mutilating red blood cells.EXPAND
Neutralized! Snake venom takes a hit as UC Irvine Professor Ken Shea (right) and grad student Jeff O'Brien develop a nano-particle gel to prevent deadly venom from mutilating red blood cells.
Steve Zylius/UCI

In a strike against primal fear everywhere, scientists at UC Irvine have had a breakthrough in combating deadly snake venom. Chemistry Professor Kenneth J. Shea and his team of grad students specializing in nano particles believe they are onto an anti-venom that will be cheap to produce and require no refrigeration. They've dubbed their broad-spectrum venom killer a "nanodote."

Current snake venom works only on a few species, and costs about $100,000 for the intravenous drip, if you can even get to a hospital in time. "Our treatment costs pennies on the dollar and, unlike the current one, requires no refrigeration,” says grad student Jeff O’Brien, who was lead writer on their published findings. “It feels pretty great to think this could save lives.”

Though human deaths from snakebite in North America are relatively rare, think of all the pets who may survive their run-ins with our pit vipers. Worldwide, it's mostly the poor and children who perish from snakebite, with around 4.5 million bit annually, half of which suffer severe injury and about 100,000 who die.

Professor Shea calls lethal snake venom a "complex toxic cocktail" that has taken millennia to evolve. The team's nano-particle gel neutralizes and sequesters the toxins—they used the venom of a Mozambique spitting cobra in the lab—without harming the good proteins in human serum.

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Since the Shea Research Group published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, they have found the same process works to slow down or halt other top-ranking phobias: spider bites and scorpion stings.
“The goal is not to save mice from venom and bee stings,” Shea says, “but to demonstrate a paradigm shift in thinking about solutions to these types of problems. We have more work to do, and this is why we’re seeking a fairly significant infusion of resources.”

Sexy scientific discoveries often end in a disappointing fashion: Works in the lab! But we are a long way off from real-world application on human beings. While the first phase was funded by the Department of Defense, as well as the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, which has worked with scientists both in and out of government ever since Sputnik beat the U.S. into space in 1957) and the National Institutes of Health, who knows if any scientific research will be government funded going forward.

“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 says, making his case for a slice of military money, about the only thing our current administration likes to fund besides the 1%. “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.”

Maybe the collective terror of spiders and snakes will prompt private donations?

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