The deadly secrets of snake venom decoded with fake blood vessels

We know that snake venom is highly poisonous to humans, but to learn more about how it works, the venom must be studied in a laboratory. To use fewer laboratory animals and explore better treatments for snakebites, a team in the Netherlands has built a new 3D model of imitation blood vessels that they call an “organ-on-a-chip.” The experimental method is described in a study published June 4 in the journal Scientific reports.

On the hunt for blood vessels

While shark bites may receive the most attention as the summer heats up, it is snake bites that cause significantly more problems and are more common. The Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO). Approximately 435,000 to 580,000 snake bites from venomous bites require treatment each year, and 100,000 people die each year. For comparison, that was approximately 69 unprovoked shark bites in 2023, with 14 fatalities.

[Related: Don’t bring us the snake that bit you, Australian hospital says.]

The team working on this study was interested in developing a model that could be used to study the destruction of blood vessels, which often occurs in a process called snakebite poisoning. This potentially life-threatening condition occurs when snake venom comes into contact with the skin or eyes. The poison causes internal bleeding because it affects the body's circulatory system, destroys blood vessels and causes blood clots.

Scientists could also benefit from a way to study how venom destroys blood vessels that doesn't require an animal to be used, so better treatments can be developed.

Organ-on-a-chip

The team built a blood vessel model, called MIMETAS' OrganoReady® Blood Vessel HUVEC, or an organ-on-a-chip. According to the studyit gives a more accurate understanding of how the toxins attack the blood vessels because it takes into account physiological characteristics such as the blood flow present or how the vessel is formed.

“We tested the model on 'raw' snake venom, and because venom is a mixture/cocktail of dozens (up to 100+) toxins, we look at the entire venom effect,” Mátyás Bittenbinderco-author of the study and biologist and toxinologist affiliated with the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, MIMETAS and Naturalis Biodiversity Center, says Popular science. “But in theory we could also isolate the individual toxins and test them individually to see what their effects are.”

They tested the functioning of the blood vessel model with the venom of an Indian cobra, West African carpet viper, many-banded krait and Mozambican spitting cobra.

[Related: Snakebites can be deadly for dogs, but some simple precautions can save them.]

According to Bittenbinder, the team was surprised by the different ways in which venom affects blood vessels. Some didn't seem to affect any of the cells at all. Other toxins were able to break down the 'molecular glue' that holds cells to each other and to their environment.

“Others simply destroyed the cell membrane,” says Bittenbinder.

'A great mix'

In future studies, the team plans to neutralize the poison effect with antidotes and new compounds. This will help determine if this same type of model can be used in snakebite control studies.

“Snake venom is such an amazing mixture. It can be dangerously toxic and sometimes even fatal in some cases, but it can (and is already being used) for the… development of new medicines and medicines, for example blood pressure lowering medications,” says Bittenbinder. “Venom can be seen as a kind of natural medicine chest that we should cherish.”

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