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The Health Show: Snake Bites
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The Health Show: Snake Bites
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A single bite from a venomous snake can case tissue damage, paralysis, and even death. Antivenoms can keep you alive, but their side effects are often devastating. That's why scientists at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are working with the Nigerian Ministry of Health to develop cheaper and safer antivenoms.
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Originally broadcast as part of The Health Show.

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Segment 1

VOICEOVER
These are some of the deadliest snakes in the world. In rural areas, their camouflage makes them hard to see. Their venom causes severe bleeding, paralysis or tissue damage. Without quick access to antivenoms, their victims can be permanently disabled -- or die. That's why scientists here at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are working with the Nigerian Ministry of Health to develop cheaper and safer antivenoms.
PAUL ROWLEY [Snake Handler]
Gently pin his head down, get him by the back of the jawbone. Offer him up to the beaker. You can see he's flicking his tongue out. There we go, good amount.
VOICEOVER
This is one of Nigeria's deadliest snakes: a saw scaled viper. It's thought it kills more people than any other African snake. Right now, this dangerous procedure is the essential first step for making antivenoms. It's an expensive and complex process. The cost of antivenoms has been rising sharply for the past twenty years.
DR. ROBERT HARRISON [Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine]
The amount of venom that we've just extracted now is sufficient to kill a human being.
VOICEOVER
Paul Rowley knows all about snakebites. He's the only person in the UK licensed to extract snake venom for medical research. It's a risky job.
PAUL ROWLEY
Being bitten by a snake really is painful. Last time I was bitten was by a juvenile rattlesnake and a lot of swelling and intense pain. I felt like my arm was broken.
VOICEOVER
Paul was given antivenom and it saved his life. But like nearly half of people treated, he suffered a serious adverse reaction.
PAUL ROWLEY
A week later I took ill again due to the effects of the antivenom and they actually wanted to re-admit me to hospital because it was quite a serious situation.
VOICEOVER
The team at the Liverpool School is developing a completely new approach. By separating out only the most toxic parts of snake venom, they hope to produce cheaper treatments that don't have such severe side effects.
DR. ROBERT HARRISON
Venom consists generally of about 200 different proteins. And the problem with this is that a lot of those proteins are not particularly toxic. And so we rationalize that if you make antivenom, which is specific only to the toxins, you won't need as much of the antivenom to affect a cure.
PAUL ROWLEY
Oh, it's always so explosive, this stuff.
VOICEOVER
This puff adder, with its large hollow fangs, produces especially toxic venom. The Liverpool team is working to identify the genes that produce only the most dangerous toxins in this and other snakes' venom. Stitched together to create a synthetic sequence, they are then inserted into lab bacteria. These tiny biological factories produce the vital proteins repeatedly -- a much safer process.
DR. ROBERT HARRISON
If we're successful we will generate a pool of antibodies which when combined will neutralize the main pathological toxins of all the venoms of all the deadly snakes in one region.
VOICEOVER
They're currently testing the effectiveness of a new antivenom designed to work against all African saw scaled vipers. Preliminary results are due in the next few months. But it will be several years before it can be manufactured in bulk. Until then, making antivenom will remain very risky, even in the hands of seasoned professionals.
DR. ROBERT HARRISON
So Paul's brought in a spitting cobra from Nigeria now. It's in this trap box. So these are one of the larger animals in our collection and they spit, so we've got to be quite careful with this one.
VOICEOVER
A synthetic antivenom can't come soon enough.
PAUL ROWLEY
That's how bad it can get sometimes.