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The science: part I (puff adders)
|A puff adder (Bitis arietans)|
This research matters because venomous snakes and their prey are in constant evolutionary arms races, leading to:
- a mosaic of new biochemical compounds that are often useful in treating disease
- a mosaic of new biochemical compounds that can make venomous snakebite really hard to treat
The science: part II (how cobras got their flesh-eating venoms)
|A Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica) spitting its venom|
|Toxicity of snake venom to human cells grown in culture.|
Warm colors indicate higher toxicity.
From Panagides et al. 2017
This is an extremely cool and popular topic. It was covered by IFLS, The Wire, Gizmodo, and the Washington Post. It goes to show that people worldwide are fascinated by venomous snakes, and the Fry lab has done a great job capitalizing on that interest (among other accolades, Fry's graduate student Jordan Debono recently won the Queensland Women in Science Peoples' Choice Award [a contest that was decided by an online popular vote; more on this later] for her research on global snakebite treatments). One reason for this fascination has to do with the question of who, exactly, these cobras are defending themselves from? The most reasonable hypothesis, given the timing and geography of the diversification of spitting cobras and the precision with which they can target forward-facing eyes and hominoid faces, is primates. Us, and our ancestors, who have eaten and been eaten by snakes for millions of years. Studying spitting cobras is a window into our own evolutionary past, a way for us to learn about ourselves. But, let us not be misled into thinking that interactions between humans and cobras are a thing of the past.
The upshot: the truth about snakebite
|You can follow the ASV @Venimologie|
A lot of the same issues used to be present in Mexico, but product improvements, government outreach, and massive education efforts in the 1980s and 1990s dramatically reduced mortality from venomous snakebite and led Mexico to become a major producer and consumer of high-quality, affordable antivenom, so much so that the USA now imports some of these drugs from Mexico. The Mexican government enabled the Mexican antivenom industry to be competitive and reach its market, which is much larger than the domestic market for American antivenom manufacturers—medically-serious venomous snakebites (and scorpion stings) in the USA are mostly confined to the southwest, and the per-capita risk of snakebite is the lowest in the world. This creates its own unique problems. You may have heard about the controversy surrounding the discontinued coralsnake antivenom made by Wyeth, and there are compelling arguments that the Mexican polyvalent antivenoms Anavip (made by Bioclon for humans) and ViperSTAT (made by Veteria Labs for cats and dogs) are more effective and much less expensive (although this is due almost exclusively to the idiosyncrasies of the US healthcare finance system) than the only FDA-approved viper antivenom, CroFab (although BTG, the maker of CroFab, filed a complaint asserting that these Mexican products infringe on its patent).
Finally, the global importance of the availability of high-quality, affordable antivenom for Latin American, African, and other exotic snakes is only going to increase as venomous snakes become more popular as pets and in zoos. This is particularly true in parts of the world completely lacking venomous snakes or with only very benign, non-life-threatening species, such as northern Europe, Scandinavia and northern North America, where doctors may be totally unprepared for a snakebite emergency and may not have appropriate antivenom on hand. This is exactly the kind of situation where government funding, in the form of orphan disease R&D grants, could play a role in making it affordable for researchers and doctors to save lives.
For a great introduction to and more in-depth coverage of these issues, you should watch The Venom Interviews or read their coverage of the recent video series.
The future: sequence the Temple Pitviper genome
|Temple or Wagler's Pitvipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri)|
at the famous Temple of the Azure Cloud in Penang, Malaysia
You can vote to sequence their genome here!
It's no secret that snakes and snake research have a PR problem: even scientific journals are less likely to publish research articles about snakes than about mammals and birds (although the bias is likely subliminal). Many people prefer cute fuzzy animals that are similar to humans, but research into the biology of un-fuzzy animals is equally important. There's a parallel to the divide between funding for basic and applied science. Basic science isn't usually as sexy as the exciting, fun applications that come later, like saving lives, curing diseases, or discovering new complex biological phenomena. However, important applied science like antivenom creation cannot happen without basic science, in particular basic science on snakes. Private companies can't afford to invest in basic science the way they once did. Which leaves government funding and that from a limited number of interested, private backers.
We should support public funding for science and elect politicians who will do the same; better treatment for snakebite should be the least partisan and most universally-agreed-upon goal in the world. I think the path between basic (snake ecology, venomics, and genomics) and applied (antivenom manufacturing and public health) science is shorter and clearer in this context than in many, but the same principles apply—you cannot have medicine, conservation, and the other good parts of civilization without science.
You can vote now through April 5th 2017 for a project sequencing the entire genome of the Temple Pitviper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) co-led by Ryan McCleary.
Stay tuned for more about the role of snake venom proteins in treating human diseases, and the role of snakes as predators in ecosystems.
1 Naturally, I wanted to link to the full-text of the paper so that anyone interested in learning more could read it, but the publisher (Wiley) has a 12-month embargo on posting the PDF anywhere online. They actually expect you to pay between $6 and $38 to read the article. Now, I think it's great research, and it probably cost Glaudas, Alexander, and their university thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to do it. But, if you pay Wiley to read their paper, none of that money will go to them, nor to the scientists who peer-reviewed their work for free. It will go to Wiley, who Xav paid (maybe) to publish. They could have paid $3,000 to make it open access, but you can understand why they didn't. No wonder most most science is read by fewer than 10 people. It's an outdated model that can't go away fast enough. In contrast, the spitting cobra paper is open access, which cost its authors over $1,500. This is typical; academic authors almost always lose money on a publication.↩
2 Recent update here; you can write the governor of Massachusetts here.↩
3 Reports suggest that this year, like last year, a much larger number of live rattlesnakes were collected than markets could support, and at least one person died from a snakebite sustained while trying to capture a rattlesnake for a roundup.↩
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