Brain and Body

Snake Venom Could Lead to Safer Surgeries

November 17, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Snake Venom
Photo credit: _paVan_/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Deadly venom could transform the healing process.

Snake venom is extremely powerful — even one gentle bite from a number of snakes, like black mambas and death adders, is enough to kill a human being. But medical engineers are developing a way to use snake venom for the greater good. In fact, snake venom could lead to much safer surgeries for patients on blood thinners.

A popular drug to prevent blood clots, heparin, is commonly used in surgeries that combat certain heart and lung conditions. However, a critical part of the healing process is for the blood to clot and thus heal surgical incisions. Unsurprisingly, patients on blood thinners have a much more difficult time healing the incisions.

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To solve the problem, researchers from Rice University paired an enzyme found in snake venom called batroxobin with nanofibers. Batroxobin, which is found in two types of South American pit viper, causes blood to coagulate even if it contains the blood thinner heparin. However, the snake venom enzyme has the tendency to disperse from the spot it’s initially introduced and can cause life-threatening blood clots elsewhere in the bloodstream. That’s where the nanofibers come in.

The researchers combined the batroxobin with “sticky” nanofibers called hydrogel to force the enzyme to stay at the injection site. Amazingly, when tested on rats who had been treated with heparin, the snake venom hydrogel promoted blood clotting at wound sites within 6 to 20 seconds.

"Controlling perioperative bleeding is of critical importance to minimize hemorrhaging and fatality. Patients on anticoagulant therapy such as heparin have diminished clotting potential and are at risk for hemorrhaging," researchers wrote in the study. When a patient suffers from a hemorrhage, they endure profuse bleeding either internally or externally. Internal bleeding in particular can be a huge risk.

"This snake venom-loaded peptide hydrogel can be applied via syringe and conforms to the wound site resulting in hemostasis. This demonstrates a facile method for surgical hemostasis even in the presence of anticoagulant therapies," they continued. In layman terms, hemostasis describes the stopping of bleeding.

Currently, doctors take on riskier approaches to reduce bleeding in surgical patients on blood thinners — foams, adhesives, sutures, and simply applying pressure. However, these methods come with some serious risks. They can spark allergic reactions, cause tissue to die, or accidentally introduce toxic byproducts into a patient.

The snake venom healing gel isn’t yet FDA approved, and researchers think the process could take several more years of testing. Still, it shows an exciting leap forward in medicine. Interestingly, it’s not the only medical initiative to experiment with the potential health breakthroughs of using poisonous venom. Researchers also found a compound in the venom of Chinese red-headed centipedes that could lead to a new painkiller that’s stronger and less addictive than morphine.

Not only are these advancements intriguing, but they highlight the paradox of animal venom — something with the power to both kill and save lives.

To see just how powerful snake venom is, check out what just one drop of it does to human blood.


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