DUHS lab makes anti-venom serum for snakebites in bulk

The National Institute of Health is the only institute that makes the serum.

Samia Malik August 16, 2012

KARACHI: The Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) has managed to produce commercially viable amounts of anti-venom serum at its sero-biology laboratory.

The foundation laying ceremony of the Dow Institute of Life Sciences, which will be dedicated to pursuing similar kinds of research, was organised at the Governor house on Thursday, where DUHS vice chancellor Prof Masood Hameed Khan shared the results of the applied biotechnology project.

Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad Khan unveiled the foundation block of the building of the new animal sciences department that will be established on DUHS’ Ojha campus, from where the laboratory has been functioning.

Meanwhile, at the animal sciences department on the varsity’s Ojha campus, professors proudly claimed the distinction for being the first in the country to make the antibody serum against snake venom in bulk.

The development is especially momentous because the country had to import such medicinal drugs from outside as no medical institute was able to manufacture them in large quantities before. The National Institute of Health in Islamabad is the only institute in the country that makes this serum, but it does so in very limited quantities. “We import about 45,000 vials of anti-venom serum from India and Saudia Arabia every year. Each vial can cost as high as Rs1800, which translates to into a burden of Rs67.5 million on the national exchequer.”

However, when DUHS sero-biology lab starts functioning at its optimum level, Dr Khan predicts that they will be able to produce the anti-venom for up to Rs 400 per vial.

According to the DUHS vice chancellor, nearly five million people get bitten by snakes everywhere in the world, of whom about three million get seriously affected or even disabled, while 125,000 die. Most of the 3,500 fatal snakebite cases in the country are reported from Sindh and Balochistan.

While explaining the origins of the project, Dr Zameer Ahmed, an assistant professor at the laboratory, said that the project was started almost two years after snakebite incidents rose in the wake of the devastating floods that had hit the province. The shortage of anti-venom at the time was palpable. “It was then that our university decided to make it ourselves,” said Ahmed.

The university later constructed a snake house and then stocked it with as many varieties of snake as the country had to offer.

Dr Khan said that nearly four principle varieties of snakes are found in Pakistan, namely the cobra, Russel Viper, Krait (called Sangchore in local language) and Saw Scale Viper (called lundi in local language

Researchers then started checking how snakes’ venoms worked. “We found out that most of the anti-venom serums that we imported were only partially effective because they were prepared from snakes that are found in other regions,” he explained.

While explaining the procedure for preparation of the serum, Dr Ahmed said that the researchers used a host animal, like a horse, and hyper immunised it with non-lethal doses of one or more venoms. The immunological response triggered by the process produces neutralising antibodies against the various toxins of the venom. Horses were used by because it was easier to use them to mass-produce the antibodies. The antibodies are later altered chemically altered so that they complement the human immune system to attack snake venom.

A team compromising Dr Ahmed, DUHS syndicate member Dr Abdul Ghaffar Billo and Dr Khan visited the Instituto Bhutantan in Brazil to seek validation of the serum samples produced by the sero-biology lab. The Instituto Bhutantan is known as one of the best sero biology laboratories in the world.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2012.