March 19, 2014

Could snake venom help deal with major health care crisis?

Dalton student’s research to be featured at national conference

By Christopher Smith

— A “nightmare” superbug, resistant to most antibiotics, is spreading throughout hospitals and nursing homes in the United States, an official with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned earlier this month.

Could snake venom be a possible alternative to combat such a bug?

When talking about antibacterial treatments, it’s easy for people to see nothing but a data stream of statistics and facts, said Marina Smitherman, an associate professor of biology at Dalton State College.

“But when you start talking about people dying it becomes something we have to deal with,” she said. “When you start talking about bacteria that can take limbs and a major crisis in antibiotics, we have to deal with this.”

That’s why Smitherman is “very excited” that one of her students, Faith Stokes, will be advocating for snake venom research at the federal level. Stokes is one of 60 undergraduates selected from 600 applicants to speak at a national conference hosted by the federal Council on Undergraduate Research at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

The conference runs April 3-5 and will bring several congressmen and U.S. senators — who often influence the purse strings tied to research funding — to hear what the young scientists are discovering in their undergraduate work.

Stokes said researching “alternatives” to antibacterial drugs is “incredibly important.”

Officials with the CDC agree, releasing numerous warnings in the last decade that drugs that most First World countries have grown dependent on for medical treatment are becoming ineffective against bacterial strains.

Research: ‘Extremely good results’

Many people get nervous at the idea of being treated with snake venom before hearing the science, Stokes admits.

“This is a really big deal,” she said. “The research I did has great results, extremely good results. It shows that snakes have antibacterial action in their venom to protect themselves from bacteria in their environments, which is something we’ve known. What I’m looking at is if we can extract the antibacterial enzymes from the rest of the venom. Then we could protect ourselves, too.”

Stokes’ research, she said, focuses on local breeds of snakes such as copperheads and water moccasins. Other research exists for more exotic snakes not found in Georgia, Stokes and Smitherman said.

To get started, Stokes purchased freeze-dried venom from Texas A&M University from snakes caught and “milked” for their venom. From there, Stokes is trying to find ways to isolate the antibacterial properties.

“You obviously can’t give someone venom as a treatment,” she said. “What we’re looking at doing next ... is trying to identify that enzyme. Long-term, the research would have to isolate the enzyme and do toxicity testing to see if it could be safely used or if it could be genetically modified.”

Smitherman said the possibility of real world pharmaceuticals from snake venom enzymes could take at least 15 years “if research across the nation shows the potential.”

“Anything that goes through the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) process has basic safety tests, clinical trials,” she said. “The process is the same for any drug.”

Researchers have also looked at modifying venom from bees and scorpions as alternatives to drugs since at least the 1960s, but Stokes said research into venom hasn’t gotten a lot of support because of shortfalls in funding or skepticism that a helpful enzyme can be extracted from an otherwise dangerous substance.

Talking to lawmakers in a forum setting could mean Stokes gets the message out that funding venom research is “very important,” Smitherman said.

“We are a long way off on figuring out what part of the venom would work,” she added. “But it’s a very exciting start. This is a major crisis that’s been waiting to happen for 20 or 30 years. The scientific community is looking for new alternatives. It’s very important to find one when you start talking about antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, drug-resistant bugs that are very infectious.”