Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Scientists in Australia have developed an ointment treatment for snakebites that should give victims much needed time to obtain medical care and anti-venom treatment.

Snakebites cause over 100,000 deaths a year worldwide. One of the problems is that more often than not, when you get bitten by a snake, you are a long way away from medical care and anti-venom treatments.

A severe reaction to an adder (Vipera berus – the UKs only poisonous snake) bite could result in death within an hour, so even in the UK there is still the need for effective first aid treatments for snake bites.

Many snake venoms contain large toxin molecules that cannot get directly into the bloodstream, and so are absorbed and transported by the lymphatic system before entering veins near the heart. A team led by Dirk van Helden at the John Hunter Hospital in New Lambton, Australia, have developed an ointment that slows down the transport of venom through the lymphatic system, which should give snake bite victims more time to get medical care.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

The ointment, described in a paper published in Nature Medicine (DOI: 10.1038/nm.2382), contains a nitric oxide donor, glyceryl trinitrate that interferes with the pumping action of lymphatic vessels. When the team injected rats with snake venom, their survival time increased by 50 per cent if they received the ointment showing that the venom transit was slowed down.

The team also applied the ointment to healthy human volunteers together with a radiolabeled tracer. They found that the tracer’s transport was similarly slowed down within the human lymphatic system.

So this research is good news for snakebite victims, but it is still some way from being a commercially available product. And of course it won’t cure you if you get bitten, just give you a bit more time to get to the hospital!

So the best thing to do is not to get bitten in the first place. The NHS has some handy hints on how to avoid snake bites that include: wearing boots and long trousers when walking on heath lands, and not putting your hand in holes or crevices.

Of course for anyone out there that likes a drink, one snakebite that shouldn’t be avoided consists of lager and cider in equal measure. And for those that like to live dangerously add some venom – a shot of vodka!

Mike Brown

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