Research has shown that the venom of an Asian cobra species has strong analgesic properties. Snakes primarily invoke fear, but we should also appreciate the gifts they bestow, writes Peter Mirtschin.
FOR SOME PEOPLE, snakes are animals they can’t stand to see, not even in pictures. Even some environmentalists give a large place to snakes.
Is this aversion a reasonable attitude, a learned behavior or an innate fear? Snakes are often a source of mysticism and in medicine snakes are enigmatic. Epidemiological statistics reveal that they cause significant death and morbidity worldwide.
Conversely, the symbol of medicine and good health in many parts of the world used by medical centers bears two serpents entwined around a winged staff or caduceus – a traditional symbol of Greek mythology.
Research has shown that venom and some of its derivatives from an Asian cobra species have strong analgesic properties in rats when given orally.
Most people are familiar with cobra snakes. Different species are found throughout Asia and Africa: cobras are known for their significant snakebite threat in these regions. This is where it stops for most people and they prefer not to meet them when visiting these countries. But if you happen to see them somewhere in the world or in your local zoo, there is something majestic about cobras because there is such an impressive cowl display when alarmed.
With their highly toxic venoms, cobras feed on rats and vermin and play an important role in controlling these pests. Their economic value in rice paddies and grain crops is vital for struggling farmers who depend on this food to feed their families. This is not always appreciated and here in Australia as soon as a snake appears some of us call a snake catcher to have it removed.
Cobras and other snakes have another benefit to us that is even less understood or appreciated. Previously, human organ transplants and xenotransplantation were rigorously researched. Today, we hardly hear about them because they are part of daily medical procedures in many countries.
Such transplants would never have taken place without the availability of a vital component of cobra venom called “cobra venom factor”. It consumes complement, an important component that triggers immune responses, so parts of the venom can be used as an immunosuppressant in research to prevent organ rejection.
Cobra venom has also been widely used in research to explore the human nervous system with its postsynaptic neurotoxins acting as tools in the neuromuscular researcher’s toolbox, leading to a better understanding of signal transmission in our bodies. . Recently, I was part of a group of authors who published (Venom Research Journal) on the characteristics of potent analgesic properties found in cobra venom and some of its components.
We all owe a lot to cobras, for it was the cobras of Vietnam that spurred the vital research that led to the development of snakebite antivenoms.
In the late 19th century, cobra bites in Vietnam were common and there was pressure to find a way to treat them. Basically, the first antivenom was made in 1894 by French scientist Albert Calmette. He became interested in creating a cure for cobra envenomation while working at the first daughter of the Pasteur Institute in Vietnam and later at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
He used cobra venom to find out how to make antibodies – first in pigeons, then in donkeys before moving on to using horses. Although there have been several improvements incorporated into our antivenoms today, the basic concept established by Calmette has remained the same.
Thanks to the cobra bite problem in Vietnam, which spurred research to develop antivenoms, protective snakebite therapies through immunotherapy have been discovered for the world. Following Calmette’s work, antivenoms were made against the Brazilian pit viper in Brazil in 1897 and tiger snakes in Australia in 1930.
For years, folk healers have used cobra venom to suppress pain if you lived in Vietnam. Today, you can easily buy cobratoxin, cobratox or cobratoxan – a derivative of Asian cobra venom – on the internet to treat arthritis pain and other chronic pain.
These products are not made with the usual rigor we are used to in Australia, regulated by bodies such as the Therapeutic Goods Authority (TGA) and have not been characterized or clinically tested. They are classified as alternative medicine. However, they may have provided clues to those who engage in more serious, scientifically based research.
Also, if you follow horse racing in the United States or Asia, you know that cobra venom or a purified toxin derivative called cobratoxin has been used, largely illegally, to dope horses. The effect sought by users of cobra venom or its derivatives for the latter use in horse racing is to deaden joint pain.
In a 12-year collaborative project between Australian and Brazilian researchers, our research has shown that the oral use of Thai cobra venom and some of its fractions has potent analgesic effects when used in rats. Indications are that this venom and some of its components may be potential therapeutic targets for pain management.
So the next time you see a cobra on your travels or at your local zoo, marvel at the beauty and contribution these magnificent creatures have made to medicine and the environment.
Peter Mirtschin is the founder of Venom Supplies and has published over 70 scientific papers on venom research, snake ecology, conservation, and snake behavior. He starred in several television documentaries.
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