By Santiago Luque Pérez, CAMBIOColombia, February 14, 2024

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The antidotes for snake venom in Colombia are safe. However, at remote sites without electricity they can’t be stored because there is no refrigeration. A group of Colombian scientists is developing a new formula that could solve this problem.

There are 272 species of snakes in Colombia. This number is equal to 8% of the worldwide diversity, and at least 50 % are poisonous. Here in this country, they are developing a powerful antivenom that could improve access to the medication in rural areas. This antivenom could be 98% effective.

In spite of the fact that the current medications show good results with bites of poisonous snakes, those medications have to be kept cold constantly, and that interferes with their application, as in several parts of the country, there is no consistent electricity. People that are bitten there have to be transported to a medical center that is able to keep the antivenom serum refrigerated.

With this new antivenom, these problems are solved, because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Because of that, it can be taken

to remote areas that don’t have electricity. This avoids unnecessary transportation and saves time, which in these extreme cases means the difference between life and death.

The project is being developed by researchers at the Javeriana University and the Biotechnology Institute at the National University of Colombia. To do this, they have allied with the Biotechnology Institute at the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (México).

What are the advances with this new medicine?

Karen Sarmiento Acuña, Professor in the Physiological Sciences at Javeriana University, explained that the antidote they are working to develop is made using a newer technique than the current one. It does not use horse serum to obtain the antibodies to make the antivenom.

“In Colombia, the production of antivenom is limited, and is associated with manufacturing processes that, although they are effective, are based on classic technologies using the immunization of horses and the subsequent obtaining and purification of serum. This technology has been used for 50 years without any modification, and it presents certain limitations,” said Professor Sarmiento.

The newer technology permits the antibodies to be made with monoclonals; in other words, highly specific and focused on a single toxin present in the venom of these snakes. Among the advantages of what’s being developed are, “It doesn’t generate as many adverse reactions, and is highly specific.”

Professor Sarmiento also said that with this method, the quantity of medication that has to be used for each patient is diminished and that reduces the cost of the treatment.

With regard to the subject of refrigeration, they are trying to find an antivenom that can be dried and turned into powder or something that looks like an aspirin tablet. That means that they won’t be using refrigeration as is necessary with the liquid serums.

How do snakebites function?

Professor and researcher Karen Sarmiento says that there are two families of poisonous snakes: vipers (Viperidae) and elapids (Elipidae). The first family belongs to the X class, which has a highly toxic venom that causes pain, swelling, burning, and hemorrhaging which can putrefy the affected tissue.

The elapid snakes are characterized by acting silently, occasioning a neurotoxic process that can lead to rapid loss of breathing ability. Coral snakes and cobras belong to this family.

The antivenom being developed by Sarmiento and her team works for the vipers. That’s because they are found in many parts of Colombia, especially in tropical jungles, mountainous areas, and savannah areas; they are responsible for between 50 and 80 percent of snakebites in Colombia.

Right now the researchers are in the preclinical phase, and they have seen some good results with the antivenom. Professor Sarmiento said that it will still take some years before it can be marketed, but they are proceeding successfully. When they reach the clinical stage, the plan is to test it on human beings.

Meanwhile, they also intend to improve the chimera, which is a molecule that has proteinic activity in the different species. That allows them to improve the specificity of the antivenom and make it more competent to treat all the species in the Viperidae family in the country.

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