A street across from Jernigan Library, another collection sits. Its volumes, if voiceless, are not without their rattles. Its codices, rather than wraparound covers, wear coils. The National Natural Toxins Center may be without microfiche. However, its index is built on the venom of 450 snakes, reading the diamond lettering of their backs for remedies—and lives to be saved.
Nested at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, the National Natural Toxins Research Center (NNTRC) remains the only federally funded viper research center in the United States. In 2014, it received another clutch of funding from the National Institute of Health, in the form of a $2.5 million grant. It is feed for the center’s work: research that not only maps out venom’s danger, but its possibilities in biomedicine. According to Dr. Elida E. Sanchez, co-director of the NNTRC for transitional research, “The venoms of animals represent a vast natural resource, as they contain a wide variety of biologically-active molecules with increasingly distinct therapeutic potential.”
That potential is not limited to Kingsville, as the NNTRC’s toxins studies are now stretched on a global canvas. Its holdings of serpents, for the most part weighed with the familiar scales of Western Diamondback rattlesnakes, are donors. Their venom, retrieved on a daily basis, is an ingredient in building a cure bigger than Texas: a universal anti-venom, one applicable to all snakebites throughout the world.
Texas boasts of loud snakes, hospitable enough to extend a greeting in two shakes of a tail. It also lays claim to a small number of snakebites every year, with an average of 20 bites on human recipients. However, for the rest of the world, nicks are more numerous. In 2015, the World Health Organization tacked snakebites into its index of tropical diseases, tallying 100,00 deaths worldwide every year. Most of these fatalities strike segments of Africa and Asia.
While anti-venoms based on animal proteins are already available, usually created from antibodies in the blood of sheep or horses, they are not foolproof. Allergic reactions on the part of patients are possible, and the serum must be protected from outside temperatures. Further, present anti-venoms are expensive. By Sanchez’s estimate, one vial falls within the price range of $4,000 to $6,000. According to these treatments, saving lives is costly.
The alternative proposed by the NNTRC shears these difficulties in keeping with its mission statement: “The National Natural Toxins Research Center has a mission to provide global research, training and resources that will lead to the discovery of medically important toxins found in snake venoms.” With a worldwide field in mind, its proposed solution to envenomation works not on tempered animal proteins, but synthetic molecules. It is a method that will not only detour the possibility of allergic reactions. If brought into practice, this product of research will also be easily transportable. Researchers at the NNTRC envision another epi-pen, minimizing serpent stings with what one carries in their pocket.
However, perhaps the developing anti-venom’s greatest potency will lie in its affordability. Labels in hundreds of dollars, as opposed to thousands, allow an impact for poor corners of the world to receive the NNTRC’s ministrations.
While it will take several years to reach completion, the universal anti-venom has already been tested in preclinical animal trials, according to Sanchez. It is another shaft set in place for a mission that delivers hope—out of pronged mouths, and then in a syringe. It follows a motto, curled beneath the image of a rattlesnake on the NNTRC’s website: “Fulfilling our mission one bite at a time.”