Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Venoms Don’t Lose Their Bite

By Stephen Luntz

A box of long-lost venom samples has proven to be a treasure-trove with the potential to provide new drugs and improve our understanding of snake evolution.

Ten years ago A/Prof Bryan Fry was deputy director at the Australian Venom Research Unit. Investigating old boxes tucked away in storage, he found one curated by anti-venom legend Prof Struan Sutherland before somehow being lost to memory.

Inside were vials of venom collected from as long ago as the 1920s and even a sample from the snake that killed venom researcher Kevin Budden in 1950. Budden had caught a taipan by the neck but was unable to bag it. He hitchhiked to town still holding the snake. “He was bitten in the process,” Fry says, “but heroically made sure the snake was transported away for research before he went to the hospital, where he died shortly after”. Budden’s sacrifice led to the development of anti-venom against taipans.

Fry and colleagues have now tested the samples to see whether they have been degraded with time. They have announced in Proteomics that most were intact. This was something of a surprise. “Like any protein, venoms are inherently unstable, and some were dried using out-of-date techniques like desiccation beads that dry slower and not always completely,” he says. The survival of the samples may be related to their high salt content, making them unfavourable for bacterial growth.

“On a scale of 1–10 of coolness, this is an 11. It was such an honour to work with these samples due to their immense historical significance,” says Fry, who is now at the University of Queensland. “And working on the sample from the snake that killed Kevin Budden, we got goosebumps.”

In addition to the historical significance, many of these samples have huge scientific value. Cane toads have sent many populations of death adders extinct, and Fry says: “Some of the Australian venoms we studied may be the only samples ever collected from a range of unique island tiger snakes which are now threatened by habitat destruction”.

Venoms evolve rapidly, so isolated populations often have a unique weapon. Snake and lizard venoms have been used to produce the blood pressure drug Captopril and Byetta, which is licensed for use against diabetes but often prescribed for obesity. “It’s a total coincidence a lizard venom is useful for obesity. It’s not like they are having their food item die of anorexia,” Fry says.

Having shown that the venoms have remained intact, except when the seal on their container degraded, Fry’s team will begin seeking uses for the contents. Whether the stocks will be adequate for research purposes “really depends on how much venom you have, what techniques you are using and how easy the particular component you are using is to purify,” says Fry, who describes the work as “a testament to Straun Sutherland’s continuing impact upon venom research in Australia, long after his passing”.