Snake organoids developed in the lab produce and secrete active toxins.

European researchers have used stem cells from snakes to grow mini-glands that make venom, a finding that could address the global shortage of life-saving antivenom for snakebite.

The team, led by Hans Clevers at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, dissected out the venom glands of nine snake species, including the Cape Coral snake and the Cape Cobra, both endemic to southern Africa.

They coaxed adult stem cells, resident in the glands and capable of becoming any cell type in that organ, to grow in a culture and become 3D organoids. These mini-glands spontaneously produced the toxins that form the deadly snake venom, with a high degree of fidelity.

“Once we grew the venom glands as organoids, we realised that they make a lot of venom,” says Clevers.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) around five million people are bitten by snakes every year, causing up to 138,000 deaths and 400,000 permanent disabilities, including limb amputation.

Despite the toll, treatment for snake envenomation is a vanishing dream across much of the globe. The WHO added snakebite to its priority list of neglected tropical diseases in 2017. It noted swathes of Sub-Saharan Africa lack sufficient antivenom, an issue partly due to commercial pressures on biopharmaceutical companies.

Another hurdle is the labour-intensive nature of antivenom production. Snakes are bred on farms then milked by hand for venom, which is injected into sheep and horses that mount antibodies to fight it.

The antibodies are harvested and purified to make antivenom for humans. Clevers’ mini-glands, which the team split and regrew into hundreds more organoids, could one day mean an inexhaustible supply of venom, minus the exigencies of snake-milking.

That all hinges, of course, on whether the organoid venom is sufficiently similar to the real stuff.

Read the full story in Cosmos magazine here