Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Scientists have successfully grown organoids composed of snake venom gland cells in the lab. The mini glands successfully produced the active toxins that compose snake venom.
The breakthrough, described Thursday in the journal Cell, could help researchers develop new antivenom and discover new medicines.
Every year, 100,000 people die from snake bites. Another 400,000 are permanently disabled. But snake venom has also helped save lives. The unique molecules found in venom have inspired a variety of human drugs, including anticoagulants and medicines to lower blood pressure.
Studying the unique components of snake venom isn't easy, as it requires the collection of venom from live specimens. Working with snakes is stressful, and the reptiles only produce so much venom at a time.
The newly developed venom gland organoids could eliminate the difficult and dangerous process of milking snakes.
For the study, scientists at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, recruited snake experts in Leiden, Liverpool and Amsterdam to help them collect venom gland cells from nine different different snake species and cultivate them in dishes.
The researchers had to tweak the conditions used to grow human organoids, but they settled on a recipe for snake organoid growth.
"The similarity between the growth conditions for human and snake tissues was staggering, with the main difference being the temperature," Hubrecht researcher Jens Puschhof said in a news release.
As reptiles are cold blooded, scientists found the venom gland organoids only grew at 32 degrees Celsius. Human organoids are grown at 37 degrees.
As they grew, scientists studied the organoids under a microscope, observing dense structures resembling the vesicles found in the venom glands of snakes. The organoids produced a wide variety of toxins found in snake venom.
"We know from other secretory systems such as the pancreas and intestine that specialized cell types make subsets of hormones," said Hubrecht scientist Joep Beumer. "Now we saw for the first time that this is also the case for the toxins produced by snake venom gland cells."
Scientists found that by tweaking the growing conditions, they could influence the types of toxins produced by the organoids. They also tested neurotoxins produced by the organoids and found they successfully blocked nerve firing in model cell systems.
Researchers plan to develop 50 different organoids from the venom gland cells of various snakes and reptiles and begin work to study the various venom components. The work could ultimately lead to the development of new drugs and antivenom.
"It was amazing to see that what started with our curiosity about potential snake venom gland organoids transformed into a technology with many potential applications affecting human healthcare," said Hubrecht researcher Yorick Post.