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Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 00:31 GMT 01:31 UK
DNA 'stems anti-venom shortage'
Snake
Anti-venom can have serious side effects
Scientists believe they can use DNA technology to stave off a shortage in snake anti-venom.

Anti-venom is still made using an age-old technique. This involves animals, mainly horses, being injected with increasing levels of venom.

The antibodies they produce are then extracted and purified. However, they are not 100% effective and can have serious side-effects.


There is a crisis in anti-venom production worldwide

David Warrell, Oxford University

Scarcity and cost have meant there is a potential shortage of anti-venom across the world.

But scientists at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are hoping they will be able to develop more supplies by using DNA technology.

Rob Harrison, from the Liverpool School of Medicine, says that injecting DNA rather than venom could have better results.

They have already used the technique successfully in mice.

The scientists took the gene jararhagin, a deadly enzyme in the venom of the Brazilian put viper that causes haemorrhaging.

They shot microscopic gold beads coated with this gene into the skin of mice. The mice fought off the "attack" by generating antibodies.

'Reduce side-effects'

The scientists are now planning to develop the technique further so that mice will produce human-type antibodies.

Those antibodies would then be extracted and fused with other cells so as to "manufacture" a potentially limitless supply of anti-venom.

They believe that these antibodies would reduce the risk of side-effects and would ensure the anti-venom is effective.

Speaking to New Scientist magazine, Rob Harrison said he and his team were looking to develop anti-venom specific to particular snake bites.

"Our effort is focused on generating antibodies specific to the toxic venom components," he said.

Following its work on the venom of the Brazilian pit viper, the scientists are now starting to develop anti-venom for the carpet vipers or Echis snakes.

'Crisis'

"This snake is responsible for more deaths than any other snake in the world," he said.

If the technique works, the antidote would be cheaper as well as better than traditional anti-venom, thus opening up opportunities to manufacture it in poorer countries where there are sever shortage problems.

David Warrell, an expert at Oxford University, said many manufacturers were closing down.

"There is a crisis in anti-venom production worldwide, particularly in Africa. The traditional manufacturers are closing down for economic reasons," he said.

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