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Scientists take a (small) step toward universal antivenom

Antivenom, like Mexican Coke or grandma’s cookies, is still made the old-fashioned way. In antivenom’s case, the recipe is straightforward: Pump a horse full of sub-lethal doses of venom from various local snakes, wait for them to develop an immune response, tap their blood, purify out antibodies, bottle, and freeze.

This vampiric, century-old process still reigns because of the unique scientific challenge posed by snake venoms. Researchers are skilled at making antibodies in the lab against specific targets. But venoms can vary vastly. A viper induces “circulatory shock” by shredding proteins in your blood, whereas a mamba blocks receptors on your muscles, paralyzing you. A king cobra seems to have multiple methods of murder. How do you build a drug against them all?

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“Snake venom is one of the most complex things you can come across,” said Kartik Sunagar, head of the Evolutionary Venomics Lab in Bengaluru, India. 

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