The biologist was walking through the forest one day, catching bats to study them for malaria, when he almost stepped on the black, arrow-shaped head of an enormous pit viper—a fer-de-lance.
The hospital, a few hours drive away, didn’t have any antivenom in their stocks. She didn’t make it.It was Dempsey’s memory of that little girl that made him leave his job as an antibody researcher at cancer pharmaceutical company, Celgene, to focus full-time on antivenoms.
For decades, scientists have injected horses, or sometimes sheep, with a diluted version of snake venom, then collected their blood after a period of incubation and immune system triggering.
Then they exposed the library to tons of toxins found in snake venom—and after seeing which toxins stuck, they picked the tightest-binding molecules, and stuck their genes inside E.
Dempsey says that because llama antibodies are roughly 80 percent similar to the ones humans make, they don’t set off damaging immune responses, which can happen with horse and sheep-derived products.
That process, which is popular in the cancer treatment world, involves designing human-like antibodies with variable regions that can bind different toxins, and getting bacteria to belch them out, just like they do for human insulin and other recombinant drug therapies.
What we need is better distribution networks, and certification programs to regulate the quality of the products and education programs to build trust with communities.” To that end, she and her colleagues in Arizona are teaming up with experts from Mexico and Africa to launch an international awareness campaign to areas hardest hit by snakebites.
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