Potential Snakebite Treatment Can Be Used in Crucial First Minutes

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
saw-scaled viper
Researchers tested a therapy known as DMPS — a compound commonly used to treat mercury poisoning — in highly venomous saw-scaled viper bites in mice. Wolfgang Wurster

While some of you might think snakes make excellent plot drivers for movies, the rest of us don't consider these reptiles as ideal costars. In fact, fear of snakes — ophidiophobia — is one of the most common in humans. While theories abound why humans are afraid of snakes, it really can be boiled down to one thing: snakebites.

And that fear really isn't totally unfounded. Although there are only about 25 species of venomous snakes found in the United States, about 81,000 to 138,000 people die from snakebite complications each year, worldwide.


The problem is so pervasive, the World Health Organization designated venomous snakebites as a category A neglected tropical disease. That means they are a massive and global health burden that affects as many as 5.4 million people annually, most in rural and impoverished areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America.

One major reason deaths are so high is because treatment with an antivenom must take place in a hospital. And according to the World Health Organization, most venomous bite victims are people living and working in urban areas with limited access to health care, making timely treatment with antivenom nearly impossible.

Even worse, antivenom is species-specific and time-consuming and costly to produce, so even if the victim makes it to the hospital in time, treatment may not be readily available.

But researchers from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine's Centre for Snakebite Research and Interventions think they've found a treatment to change that. According to a May 6, 2020, study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, authors Dr. Laura-Oana Albulescu and Professor Nicholas Casewell tested a therapy known as DMPS — a compound commonly used to treat mercury poisoning — in highly venomous saw-scaled viper bites in mice.

The oral treatment not only protected the mice against venom-induced death, it also prevented tissue damage. Additionally, when DMPS was used as a rapid intervention followed by a delayed antivenom therapy, the mice were completely protected. The findings suggest that DMPS could be used as a medication to treat snakebites immediately after someone is bitten. These patients may still need treatment with antivenom in a hospital setting, but instant intervention with DMPS could have potential to save lives.

"Because DMPS is an oral drug, it could be easily administered in the community by trained volunteers immediately after a snakebite," lead author Dr. Laura-Oana Albulescu said in a statement. "This would be a tremendous advantage in helping to reduce the onset of pathology, as snakebite victims can currently take many hours to reach a health care facility."

The next step, of course, is to test the intervention on humans. And if that works, perhaps ophidiophobia will one day take a backseat to another top phobia: public speaking.