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Snake venom could save patients from bleeding out!

We never thought we'd be begging for snake venom.

By Cassidy Ward

In The Bad Guys, the animated film based on Aaron Blabey’s children’s book series of the same name, a trio of predatory animals form a criminal gang mostly because it’s what’s expected of them. Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) in particular, struggles with the idea that he could reform his life in opposition to the public’s perception of his species.

In the real world, snakes suffer from a similar public perception. They are among the most feared animals in the world, and for good reason. Depending on the species, snake bites can be fatal within moments of being bitten. Now, however, the fatal functions of snake venom are being transformed into lifesaving therapies.

One way that snakes kill their prey is by triggering a chain reaction in the blood, causing it to clot uncontrollably. Runaway blood clots can cause additional trauma in the organs and the brain leading to death, but scientists from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland wanted to know if they could use those same processes to buy time for trauma victims.

Their new study, published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, looked at two proteins in snake venom which impact blood clotting in animals, including humans. The first protein, called ecarin, initiates clotting in the blood while the second protein, called textilinin, prevents your body’s natural anti-clotting behavior. Both of those proteins are important for effective snake hunting, and they’re just as important for this new therapy.

Under normal circumstances, your body maintains a tenuous balance with relation to the consistency of your blood. At any given moment, you want it to be fluid and clot free, but your blood must be ready to clot at a moment’s notice in the event of an injury. To make sure that balance is maintained, your body has two trigger points, one which initiates clotting and another which shuts down and dismantles those clots when they’re no longer needed. Keeping a person alive and healthy is, at least in part, a balancing act between these two blood conditions.

Snake venom takes advantage of both of those trigger points, using ecarin to rapidly produce clots and textilinin to prevent your body from getting rid of those clots. They quickly stack up, resulting in death. Intentionally introducing those proteins into the body as a form of therapy might seem like the last thing we’d want to do, but scientists have developed a way to do it in a controlled way to reduce the risk of bleeding out in the moments after traumatic injury.

Today, uncontrolled blood loss is the second leading cause of death after traumatic injury, second only to damage to the central nervous system. Many existing blood loss prevention therapies available today rely on the patient having a functioning clotting system and essentially consist of applying pressure to the wound with gauze to facilitate the creation of naturally occurring blood clots. These systems are not as effective for patients whose clotting systems are compromised, either as a result of genetics or medical blood thinners, and it can often take several minutes for the body to create a clot, by which time a patient may have lost too much blood.

This new snake venom-based therapy addresses both of these concerns by utilizing the venom proteins. Instead of an injection, which runs the risk of creating clots where they aren’t wanted, and which requires at least some training or familiarity with injections, scientists incorporated the target proteins into a thermally responsive hydrogel. That means it can be applied topically to the site of an injury, without the need of an injection or any specialized knowledge on the part of the first responder.

The hydrogel starts out as a liquid but becomes gelatinous in the presence of body heat. The gelation process allows it to coat wounds of various sizes, shapes, and locations and it also seals the wound so that no additional external infections can take place.

In tests, clots formed within 60 seconds, approximately eight times faster than naturally formed clots, and was found to be effective even in patients who normally don’t form clots well. That’s because it works at the injury-site, instead of inside the circulatory system itself, creating a clot in the exact position you want it. The second protein then prevents the body from breaking down that clot, effectively reducing or eliminating runaway blood loss.

The idea is to create trauma packs which could be deployed not only in ambulances or at medical centers, but at the consumer level as a part of first aid kits. Early application could result in saving countless lives which, today, might be lost as a result of blood loss in advance of reaching a hospital.

It’s still probably a good idea to avoid any snakes you find roaming in the great outdoors, but considering their role in life saving medications, it might be time for us to reconsider our position of them as the bad guys.