Biologists are one step closer to creating snake venom in the lab

Researchers have grown organoids that mimic the venom glands of snakes

milking snake venom

NO FANGS NEEDED  Antidotes to snakebites require milking snakes for their venom, but new work with stem cells may allow researchers to make venom in the lab instead.

mark higgins/shutterstock

SAN DIEGO — Labs growing replicas of snakes’ venom glands may one day replace snake farms.

Researchers in the Netherlands have succeeded in growing mimics of venom-producing glands from multiple species of snakes. Stem cell biologist Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, reported the creation of these organoids on December 10 at a joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization.

If scientists can extract venom from the lab-grown glands, that venom might be used to create new drugs and antidotes for bites including from snakes that aren’t currently raised on farms.

Up to 2.7 million people worldwide are estimated to be bitten by venomous snakes each year. Between about 81,000 to 138,000 people die as a result of the bite, and as many as roughly 400,000 may lose limbs or have other disabilities, according to the World Health Organization.

Antivenoms are made using venom collected from snakes usually raised on farms. Venom is injected into other animals that make antibodies to the toxins. Purified versions of those antibodies can help a bitten person recover, but must be specific to the species of snake that made the bite. “If it’s a fairly rare or local snake, chances are there would be no antidote,” Clevers says.

Three postdoctoral researchers in Clevers’ lab wanted to know if they could make organoids — tissues grown from stem cells to have properties of the organs they mimic — from snakes and other nonmammalian species. The researchers started with Cape coral snakes (Aspidelaps lubricus) that were dissected from eggs just before hatching. Stem cells taken from the unhatched snakes grew into several different types of organoids, including some that make venom closely resembling the snake’s normal venom, Clevers reported at the meeting.

His team has produced venom-gland organoids from at least seven species of snakes. The organoids have survived in the lab for up to two years so far.  

Clevers and colleagues hope to harvest venom from the organoids, which produce more highly concentrated venom than snakes usually make. “It’s probably going to be easier than milking a snake,” he says.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

More Stories from Science News on Life