When you hear the words “amazing transformation“, what is the first thing you think of?
A caterpillar becoming a butterfly? Coal becoming a diamond?
Well my friends, you are all wrong.
The most amazing transformation of all is how venom becomes antivenom!
Ok, ok, it doesn’t directly turn into antivenom itself, but close enough. It is the foundation needed to create its counterpart, much like Edward Norton was to Brad Pitt in Fight Club (which I’m not supposed to talk about).
So how does something that can kill you in minutes help create something that can save you in minutes?
The answer is farm animals. Namely horses, sheep and goats.
Snake and spider venom may be deadly to us, but many animals are practically immune to it. The reason it is so poisonous to us is due to our blood not containing the right white blood cells to nullify the venom and not being able to produce them fast enough to stop it. Horses however, can handle much much larger doses of venom before suffering the same fate as humans, which makes them prime candidates to help us weaklings out.
So here we go. Venom to antivenom.
Once venom is collected from a snake, spider, jellyfish or any other poisonous critter, it is stored frozen at around -20 degrees celsius. This helps separate the toxic chemicals of venom from the water in the fluid, concentrating the sample, and allowing scientists to know exactly how much undiluted poison is there. Now with a concentrated sample of death juice, it is mixed with an adjuvant (a substance that accelerates your body’s immune response) and injected in very small doses into a lucky volunteer – usually a horse, sheep or goat – a number of times over a few weeks. These animals are able to withstand the effects of the poison due to their much greater volume of blood, plus the ability to create the necessary antibodies much faster. Often the venom is diluted with either purified water or a buffer solution, making it a little easier on the volunteer.
Now we have our brave horsie nice and envenomated, the magic starts to happen.
Horses can produce the required antibodies to stop the effects of venom in much shorter time than we can, and in far greater numbers. Antibodies are at a maximum number after between 8 – 12 weeks, so at this point, blood is drained from the horse. A whopping 6 – 8 litres of it!
Never fear though, this doesn’t bleed the horse to death.
Once the blood is removed, it is filtered through a series of extremely complex machines which separate the components of blood. White blood cells, our newly created antibodies, are removed from the blood, and then our good friend the horse gets his 8 litres of antibody-less blood returned to his body. Everyone is happy!
From this stage it is just a matter of freeze drying the solution, packaging it up, and sending it off to wherever someone has just been bitten.
To watch a great video explaining these steps while they are happening, click this link!
There are a few ethical issues that are raised in the production of antivenom, mostly about using animals like horses to be injected with extremely dangerous substances. However, horses are not like humans. They are able to withstand massive amount of specific venoms before being affected by it. On top of that, I urge people that argue that horses are in pain while being tested on to watch any video of the process. You will see that the horse is quite calm and shows no sign s of distress or discomfort.
So there you have it. Snake – alive and well. Horse – alive and well. Human – hopefully arrives at the hospital in time to be injected with antivenom. If so – alive and well! If not…