For years, there has been a quest for a universal snakebite antidote that can be administered in the field by the bite victim. Currently, hospitals in tropical regions have carried antivenoms, but they are snake specific, need to be refrigerated and administered by doctors. Valuable time is wasted.

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Warning Sign

Dr. Matthew R. Lewin, a physician and director of the Center for Exploration and Travel Health at the California Academy of Sciences has been seeking a universal snakebite antidote that can be administered in the field and he may have found it.

His journey has been unique. First, he narrowed an enzyme in phospholipase A-2, called sPLA2 that is found in snake venom and can cause nervous system, muscle and red blood damage.

Second, he had to find a molecule that battled sPLA2 (an antidote). He poured over literature and listed thousands of compounds that he thought might work, maxing out his personal credit card in the process.

Third, he used a commercially available sPLA2 test where he mixed venom with possible antidotes. One drug stood out: Varespladib, originally developed by Eli Lilly and Shinogi to fight sepsis.

To further his research, he sent his methods to researcher Janie Merkel at the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery for Molecular Discovery in West Haven, Connecticut. She tested the drug on a variety of snake venoms and concluded that the drug incapacitated sPLA2 in all 28 of them.

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Venomous Rattle Snake

Lewin turned to rodent studies, hiring a contract research organization. Rodents were given a lethal dose of coral snake or common adder venom. The rodents that were administered Varespladib within one to five minutes, were still alive after 24 hours. Those not administered the antidote died, with high levels of sPLA2 in their systems. The survivors had sPLA2 at baseline levels. This was promising.

Dr. Lewin presented his findings at Venom Week at East Carolina University in Greenvale, North Carolina where it was well received. At that point, he was able to reach out and secure funding to continue his research.

He founded a startup, Ophirex to develop and test the drug and the oral formulation of varespladib methyl. He and his team are currently writing up the results for a peer-reviewed publication. They are also seeking a patent for the repositioned version of the drug Varespladib for use, specifically, as a snakebite antidote.

His goal is to work toward human trials.

Dr. Lewin says,

For me, this can’t move fast enough. But safety is the first concern. No lives have been saved yet!

Others in the field are excited but cautious. José Maria Gutiérrez, at the University of Costa Rica, has been researching venom and treatments for forty years and finds the results interesting and promising but would like to see further animal studies before human trials begin.

This shows how the power of one, how one determined person may change the world, one snakebite at a time.

Nancy Loyan Schuemann
Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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