Snake venom: The key to cardiovascular health?

Snake venom: The key to cardiovascular health?

29/09/2018
16:16
Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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The Biotechnology Institute at UNAM has developed an antivenom that could cure cardiovascular ilnesses

A shiny, bright yellow, red, and black pattern can be seen on the surface of its slim silhouette as it slides over fallen leaves. Beautiful as it seems, it is an unequivocal sign of danger. Coral snakes are part of the Elapidae family which, along with the Viperidae family, encompasses some of the most venomous reptiles in Mexico. The coral snake uses poison to paralyze its prey, which is why as soon as the venom’s effect reaches the diaphragm, breathing stops, and people bit my coral snakes often die of asphyxiation.

However, only between 1 and 2% of snake bite incidents in the country are caused by coral snakes. Normally, they are very calm and, as with any other animal, they only attack when they feel threatened or when somebody accidentally steps on the soil in which they look for lizards and smaller snakes that are part of their diet. But coral snake bite accident can be lethal in many cases, and one of the main concerns of international health associations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) has been the creation of effective antivenins to protect rural communities that live near these creatures.

Snake antivenins or atiophidics are usually the preferred treatment to neutralize the venom, which usually has two main groups of proteins to which its toxicity is due: Phospholipases and neurotoxins. The latter group includes the alpha-neurotoxins responsible for the respiratory arrest.

A team from the Biotechnology Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has developed an antigen for the production of antivenins capable of inhibiting the effects of coral snake bites, mamas, and cobras, as well as other snakes that are part of the Elapidae family, which can mainly be found in America, Asia, and Africa.
 

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Doctor Gerardo Corzo, specialist in poisonous animal venom at the Biotechnology Institute, has pointed out that when traditional antivenins are developed, the creature’s full venom is used to arouse an immune response in animals such as horses. With just a precise dose to keep it from presenting physiological problems and ultimately dying, the horse generates the proper antibodies to keep these venoms under control. The substance is then gradually inoculated until the antibodies that fight the poison’s activity in the body evolve. Subsequently, the antibodies are extracted from the bloodstream.

The global impact of a more powerful antivenin can also benefit other regions of the world. According to data from the World Health Organization (OMS), there are around 5 million cases of snake bites every year, and almost 50% of them happen in Asia. One of the countries that present the most cases and deaths caused by snake bites is India, which registers an average of 90,000 cases a year, while in Mexico, According to the National System of Epidemiological Surveillance, there are only 1,800 snake bites every year. The outcome of snake bites has to do with the species, the specimen’s age and size, as well as the total volume of venom inoculated, though it also relates to the victim’s age, medical history, and the site of the bite.

This type of study can serve as a starting point for other pharmaceutic uses. Corzo commented that neurotoxins had other applications at a physiological level such as the treatment of diseases related to ion channels. “The generation of recombinant proteins for pharmaceutic use through the poison of venomous animals has a very high potential. From a molecular standpoint, these venoms have very specific receptors and these molecules can be modified to induce positive effects. For instance, there are certain proteins found in spider venom that can block certain ion receptors, preventing the generation of antibodies, which can be a useful tool in organ transplants.”

Snake venom is very rich in large-mass proteins which are very useful in treatments related to hemostasis, the blood’s coagulation system. This type of drugs helps dissolve blood clots and reduce the risk of heart attacks. In fact, captopril, which is one of the most important drugs in the treatment of cardiovascular illnesses, was developed through a molecule that was discovered almost 50 years ago, and it is still a popular drug in the treatment of hypertension. It is said that this discovery led scientists to consider using animal venom as a source of bioactive compounds for other uses.

Snakes are a valuable source of molecules and even the terrible effects of the most toxic snake bite can be reverted. The capacity to modify the biochemical structure of certain molecules can turn venom into a powerful agent for development in the health sector.
 

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