Lab-grown snake organs produce actual venom

A batch of the snake venom organoids
A batch of the snake venom organoids.  Ravian van Ineveld, © Princess Máxima Center.

Although snake venom generally has a pretty nasty effect on people, it’s also used in the production of life-saving antivenoms, along with various other medications. It could soon be much easier to acquire, as scientists have grown mini venom-producing glands in the lab.

Currently, venom is “milked” from the fangs of snakes at special farms, where the reptiles are forced to bite down on collection containers. Not only is the process difficult and risky for the technicians (and presumably stressful to the snakes), but it also requires many milking sessions in order to harvest usable amounts of venom.

As part of an international collaboration, three PhD students at the Netherlands’ Utrecht University looked into an alternative – growing miniature versions of the glands that produce the venom, so that a plentiful source is always readily and easily available.

They started with fertilized Cape coral snake eggs, obtained from a breeder. The baby snakes were removed from the eggs prior to hatching, after which tiny tissue samples were taken from their venom glands.

Those samples were placed in gels, to which growth factors had been added. Within a short time, the stem cells in those samples grew into mini “organoid” versions of the venom glands. In fact, they grew so quickly that each organoid could be broken apart and used to grow multiple other organoids within just one week. Over the course of two months, hundreds of them were produced.

And yes, the mini-glands were indeed active. More specifically, they contained structures that resembled the venom-containing vesicles found in actual venom glands. Peptides produced by those structures were biologically active, and closely resembled components of venom from live snakes.

In fact, neurotoxins produced by the organoids blocked the nerve-firing process in muscle cells, just like the neurotoxins in natural venom. Interestingly, though, by tweaking the composition of the growth factor, it was possible to alter the characteristics of the organoid venom. This suggests that the venom could therefore be tailored to optimize its use in developing antivenoms or other drugs.

“More than 100,000 people die from snake bites every year, mostly in developing countries. Yet the methods for manufacturing antivenom haven’t changed since the 19th century,” says Hans Clevers, senior author of a paper on the study. “It’s clear there is a huge unmet medical need for new treatments.”

The paper was recently published in the journal Cell.

Sources: Hubrecht Institute at Utrecht University, Cell Press via EurekAlert


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