Aminiaturized version of the snake venom gland that secretes functionally active toxins can be grown from stem cells, researchers describe January 23 in Cell.

Scientists have previously cultured these simplified tissues, called organoids, from mouse and human stem cells, including “minibrains” that model neuronal networks, but this study is the first to show that the same techniques work with snake tissue. 

Hans Clevers, a principal investigator at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research, and his team used human growth factors to culture the snake venom organoids, reports STAT, but there was one critical difference from mammalian organoids: temperature. The snake organoids needed to be kept a few degrees colder than cultures from mice and humans, Clevers tells STAT, because reptiles are cold-blooded.

The experiment started with three of Clevers’s grad students who wondered...

“It’s a breakthrough,” says snake venom toxicologist José María Gutiérrez of the University of Costa Rica in San José who was not involved in the study, in remarks to Science. “This work opens the possibilities for studying the cellular biology of venom-secreting cells at a very fine level, which has not been possible in the past.”

Expanding scientists’ knowledge of snake venom has important implications for human health. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes every year. Somewhere between 81,000 and 138,000 of those victims die as a result. This neglected public health issue is especially prevalent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

The current method of producing antivenom involves injecting a horse with snake venom and collecting the resulting antibodies, a centuries-old technique that requires milking a live snake. Venom gland organoids may be a safer and more economical alternative, reports The Atlantic

“The biotechnology they are describing is a potentially wonderful addition to the toolbox of toxins research generally,” writes Leslie Boyer of the University of Arizona’s VIPER Institute in an email to STAT. “What will future studies reveal about the interaction of components of complex venoms? Can a practical harvest of toxins be generated for cost-effective use in future applications? How do cells full of deadly toxins avoid suicide?”

Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at aschleunes@the-scientist.com.

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