In 2020, the recipe for antivenom is still only 50% intuitive. You need ingredients from two rather lively creatures: venom, from a snake, and antibodies, from a horse. According to the World Health Organization, snakebites are responsible for as many as 138,000 deaths in a year. The method for creating antivenom has remained relatively unchanged from the 19th century — until now.
Research in the Netherlands is growing miniature snake venom organoids in the lab, potentially circumventing the need for a more hands-on approach in the creation of antivenom.
By removing tissue samples from a fertilized Cape Coral cobra snake egg, researchers were able to create venom gland organoids. They used the same process — a dish, and growth factors — with eight other species. The result? Lab-made toxins, courtesy of a few different cell types found in the organoids. These toxins, in turn, make up venom.
Like their cold-blooded antecedents, the organoids must be kept at a temperature chillier than 37 degrees Celsius, aka [A-K-A] what human organoids typically prefer.
Researchers plan on building a “bank” of samples from different venomous snakes, hoping to understand the genes responsible for generating venom toxins. This may be the key to eventually finding a more efficient way to create antivenom. Additionally, the toxins themselves could potentially be repurposed as drugs.
Future studies can slither down a few different avenues. For example, what prevents cells full of lethal toxins from self-destructing? Lab-grown organoids might provide answers, and a chance to study the biology of venom glands on a fundamental level — snakes optional.