Snakes are very useful. “Leave the poor reptile alone. “
Among my friends and family, I am known as the lover of strange snakes.
Because of this, every few weeks or so I get a text message with a grainy photo of a snake in a garden or near a local stream and a version of the message “Let live or kill?” Nine times out of 10 it’s a harmless snake species. But every time, poisonous or not, I’ll tell my friends to leave the poor reptile alone.
It doesn’t come from my love for snakes, per se, although I’m definitely a fan (and because most snakebites happen when humans try to move them). This is because we understand so little about a species that has been feared and slandered for years. And as research continues and technologies evolve, one thing becomes clear: Snakes are potentially very useful in drug development, especially poisonous snakes.
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This realization has never been truer than this year. Most recently, the University of Arizona published a study identifying a key molecular mechanism responsible for COVID-19 Mortality: an enzyme linked to toxins found in rattlesnake venom. Now, researchers are exploring if there are ways to design the enzyme to treat COVID in the long term.
Snake research has always been slow and fragmented, and for understandable reasons. Encounters with snakes were quite rare, especially in developed countries, and many poisonous species are elusive. But as climate change alters environments and human settlements expand, encounters with snakes are on the increase in some parts of the world.
The good news is that as technological advancements continue and databases expand in the areas of genomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics, our understanding of how venoms can lead to new ones. drugs began to flourish, and not just as treatments for COVID. One of the first antihypertensive drugs approved for clinical use came from the study of the venom of a viper. The blood sugar drug Byetta was created from the saliva of the monster Gila, a poisonous lizard found in North America. The antiplatelet drug Aggrastat was derived from a molecule found in the sawscale viper.
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And we might even have universal antivenom in as little as five years. That’s according to researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Snakebite Research and Intervention Center who are studying how to use camels to produce more stable antivenom that doesn’t require cold chain storage. This is huge news, especially for people in rural parts of the world, as antivenom is currently prohibitively expensive and difficult to transport.
All of this to say that while I love snakes, this is not a love letter to them, nor a rebuke to anyone I see on Facebook asking me if they should kill the snake in their backyard. It’s a call to pause and consider the future the next time you come across a snake – or other creepy crawling species – and decide you shouldn’t experience it. If possible, don’t. The vast majority of snake species are harmless. And even if you do come across the poisonous kind (or, as I like to call them, a non-spicy chord), your best bet is to live and let live. Because there is a future not too far away in which this scaly creature could very well save someone’s life.
This article originally appeared on the Palm Beach Post: Comment: Medical research, like on COVID-19, benefits from snakes