King’s Lynn doc seeks to find snakebite antidote

Dr Stephen Samuel, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King's Lynn ANL-140723-103653001
Dr Stephen Samuel, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King's Lynn ANL-140723-103653001

A doctor at Lynn’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital is playing a key role in development of a universal antidote for snakebite.

The nasal spray being developed by a team including Dr Stephen Samuel could help save thousands of lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of limb amputations worldwide.

Dr Samuel, who is from Tamil Nadu, a snake-dense region of southern India, currently works in general medicine at the QEH. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, where he did his Masters in molecular medicine and PhD in Nanomedicine research.

Since last year he has been collaborating with doctors in this country, the US and India – and their research has been carried out without formal funding while performing their full-time jobs.

Tests involving the drug neostigmine*, which reverses paralysis, in the form of a nasal spray have produced promising results in mouse models involving high-dose cobra venom. Further research is directed toward counteracting the enzymes in viper venom that cause clotting disturbances and tissue destruction.

Dr Samuel said: “This agricultural disease is an ancient scourge and a huge problem around the world and mainly affects people in poorer countries. Around five million people are bitten by snakes every year and this accounts for around 100,000 deaths and more than 400,000 amputations; 75per cent of victims who die do so before reaching the hospital. After mosquitos, snakes kill more people than any other animals.

“The World Health Organisation recently added snakebite to its list of neglected tropical conditions. Yet, very little work has been done over the years on developing effective field treatments and the main treatment remains antivenom—produced in much the same way for the past 125 years.

“The problem with antivenom is that, ideally, it should be given in hospital setting because of high incidence of life-threatening complications such as anaphylactic shock. In addition, it is expensive, sensitive to heat and moisture and has costs beyond the reach of people in poorer parts of the world.

“Survival from snakebite depends on shortening the time between bite and treatment and the spray we have been developing could be readily available and can be administered by anyone. This will buy patient the much needed time and could be a bridge to survival. Indeed, the potential for saving lives is enormous.”

Laboratory testing of the nasal spray included Dr Samuel’s associate, Dr Lewin in the USA, undergoing paralysis similar to cobra bite in a controlled hospital setting. He recovered “within minutes”.

Dr Samuel said: “We have to conduct more research, but there is a clear path to a universal antidote by combining venom inhibitors. All venomous snakes use the same basic weapons everywhere on Earth. At the moment we are funding the research ourselves, along with some generous support from friends and family.”

On behalf of the research team Dr Samuel plans to seek assistance and backing via Health Enterprise East, the NHS Innovation hub for the East of England.

* The drug neostigmine is one of a class of drugs known as anticholinesterases. They are inexpensive, readily available and heat-stable. It has helped to prove that the effects of venom can be reversed without use of needles. This opens the door to the development of effective first aid by people with limited training.