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Scientists inject horses with snake venom to develop treatment for humans

Scientists in Costa Rica are injecting venom into horses to create antibodies to treat humans bitten by snakes.

Veterinarians at the Clodomiro Picado Institute breed poisonous snakes and extract their lethal venom.

"The head is taken and the rest of the body brought to a glass container with cold insulation, we expose the fangs. Once the fangs are exposed, we massage the glands where the venom is released, after this process, the mouth is disinfected and the animal is returned to its enclosure," said Jasmin Arias, a natural resources manager at Clodomiro Picado Serpentarium.

The extracted venom is then transported to a horse farm where it’s injected into the horses in small doses.

"That generates an immunological reaction. After the horses receive these poisons, they start to produce antibodies and sometime later we collect blood from the horses,” said Mauricio Arguedas, a veterinarian at the Clodomiro Picado Institute.

The blood is separated into its different phases: the liquid plasma and the solid cells. The institute makes sure that blood cells are separated from the plasma and returned to the horse so it doesn't become anaemic.

The plasma is taken to the production laboratory where the antibodies are purified.

"By means of chemical processes we separate these contaminants and purify the specific antibodies against the venom to which the horse has been immunised, these antibodies are purified, formulated, sterilised, and then proceed to packaging," said Eduardo Segura, a microbiologist at the Clodomiro Picado Institute.

The institute produces 100,000 to 150,000 doses per year, which are exported to Central America, South America, Asia and Africa.

"It has been taken…also to strengthen clinical studies that attest that the product is safe and effective, this strengthens the idea that the product saves lives, which is what we want. We could talk about [approximately] 5,000 lives that are saved with this serum," said Andrés Hernández, pharmaceutical manager of the Clodomiro Picado Institute.

Antivenom is administered to patients who have suffered a bite from a poisonous snake and works by boosting our immune response.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes each year, resulting in between 83,000-138,000 deaths.

The lack of antivenom treatments around the world is threatening lives, says the WHO.

The Clodomiro Picado Institute, a part of the University of Costa Rica, was involved in drafting guidelines for producing, controlling, and regulating snake antivenom.

Horses injected with snake venom "produce powerful antibodies that can bind to snake venom components, enabling our own immune defences to eliminate these toxins," according to WHO.

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