To some, an opossum is just a giant rat that scared you from ever going into your garage again. But North America's only marsupial may also hold the key to cheaply saving thousands of lives a year.
Bites from venomous snakes have little effect on opossums, so researchers at San Jose State University isolated a component of opossum blood and used it to counteract venom -- without the rash, fever or other side effects that can accompany standard treatments. So far, the team has only tested the antidote in mice, but if given the green light, it could be used to treat some of the estimated 421,000 snake bites in humans that occur around the globe every year.
The group's opossum-based antivenom is derived from a chain of amino acids called a peptide, found in the opossum's blood. Dr. Claire Komives, a chemical engineer who presented the findings Monday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, says the peptide was actually discovered in the nineties -- it was even patented -- but its potential for treating snake bites had gone unnoticed.
Initially, Komives was skeptical, she told the meeting audience: "As I was looking at this, I thought, 'This must be baloney.'" But she remained curious, and decided to try it out herself. "And there was a remarkable effect."
She put in an order for the peptide, and tested it out on mice. The ones that received just rattlesnake venom were dead in 12 hours. But the ones who received the same venom dose, along with the opossum peptide?
"They never showed any effects...Basically, the venom was completely neutralized," she said.
The original patent on the peptide has expired, so Komives and her team hope to use it to solve the global problem of snake bites, especially in developing countries, where antivenoms are scarce.
Komives said her team has developed a way to program E. coli bacteria to produce large quantities of the peptide at very low cost: About one dollar per dose. "I believe there is a very large volume potential with this," Komives said.
Though her own research has only included venoms from two different species of snake, the original research from the nineties indicates that the peptide could be useful against many types of snake, as well as other biological toxins.