Snake venom’s deadly secrets decoded with fake blood vessels

We know tha snake venom is highly toxic to humans, but to learn more about how it works, venom must be studied in a lab. To use fewer laboratory animals and research better treatments for snake bites, a team in the Netherlands has built a new 3D model of imitation blood vessels they call an “organ-on-a-chip.” The experimental method is described in a study published June 4 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Going after blood vessels

While shark bites might get most of the attention as summer heats up, it’s snake bites that cause considerably more trouble and are more common. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates about 435,000 to 580,000 snake bites from venomous bites need treatment every year and 100,000 people die annually. By comparison, there were roughly 69 unprovoked shark bites in 2023, with 14 fatalities

[Related: Don’t bring us the snake that bit you, Australian hospital says.]

The team on this study was interested in developing a model that can be used to study blood vessel destruction–which often occurs in a process called snakebite envenoming. This potentially life-threatening condition happens when snake venom comes in contact with the skin or eyes. The venom causes internal bleeding, as it attacks the body’s circulatory system, destroying blood vessels and creating blood clots. 

Scientists also could benefit from a way to study how venom destroys blood vessels that doesn’t require using a lab animal, so that better treatments can be developed.

Organ-on-a-chip

The team built a blood vessel model, called MIMETAS’ OrganoReady® Blood Vessel HUVEC, or an organ-on-a-chip. According to the study, it provides more accurate insight into how the toxins attack the blood vessels because it takes into account physiological features like the blood flow present or how the vessel is shaped. 

“We tested the model on ‘crude’ snake venom, and because venom is a mixture/cocktail of dozen (to sometimes 100+) toxins, we look at the whole venom effect,” Mátyás Bittenbinder, a study co-author and biologist and toxinologist affiliated with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, MIMETAS, and Naturalis Biodiversity Center, tells Popular Science. “But in theory, we could also isolate the individual toxins and test them individually to see what their effects are.”

They tested the functioning of the blood vessel model with the venom of an Indian cobra, West-African carpet viper, many-banded krait, and Mozambique spitting cobra. 

[Related: Snakebites can be deadly for dogs, but some simple precautions can save them.]

According to Bittenbinder, the team was surprised to see the varying ways that venoms affect the blood vessels. Some didn’t appear to affect any of the cells at all. Other venoms were capable of demolishing the “molecular glue” that keeps the cells attached to one another and their surroundings. 

“Others just simply destroyed the cell membrane,” says Bittenbinder.

‘An amazing mixture’

In future studies, the team plans to try to neutralize the venom effect with antivenoms and new compounds. This will help determine if this same type of model can be used in studies on combatting snake bites. 

“Snake venom is such an amazing mixture. It can be dangerously toxic and sometimes even deadly in some cases, but it can (and is already used) for the development of new drugs and  medicine, for instance, blood pressure-lowering medicines,” says Bittenbinder. “Venom can be seen as sort of a natural medicine cabinet, which we should be cherishing.”


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