Venom bank to milk the lethal toxins from some of Australia’s most dangerous reptiles

Deadly droplets: Nick Clemann milking a Highland Copperhead snake for its venom.

Deadly droplets: Nick Clemann milking a Highland Copperhead snake for its venom. Photo: Penny Stephens

Venom samples from some of Australia’s most dangerous wildlife will be collected and stored at the country’s first publicly available venom bank, to be housed at Melbourne Museum.

The venom bank, a joint project between the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Melbourne Museum and Melbourne University, will store samples from snakes, spiders, scorpions and even the blue-ringed octopus and male platypus.

However, it will be a venom bank with a difference. Not only will the potentially deadly droplets be available for researchers to study but each venom sample will be able to be matched with the specimen it came from and tissue containing the animal’s DNA and RNA.

Of the more than 100,000 venomous species on the planet, probably only 1000 have been studied and fewer than 100 would be considered familiar to scientists.

Snake venom is most commonly collected for antivenom production – but even on that front Arthur Rylah senior scientist Nick Clemann said there was much still to be learnt.

For example, researchers are starting to explore if venom from the same species can vary depending on age or geographic location. The venom produced by an alpine-dwelling copperhead snake may well differ from its lowland counterpart.

“This raises the question; could we make better antivenom if it was geographic-specific,” Mr Clemann said. “A Melbourne-specific tiger snake antivenom may be more effective and have fewer side-effects than the current antivenom which uses snakes collected from anywhere in Australia.”

The samples stored at the venom bank will be available to researchers across Australia, with research topics not limited to improving antivenom.

Analysing the differences between a species venom depending on location may also provide researchers with valuable taxonomic information.

Venom is also known to have other uses in the pharmaceutical sphere. An ingredient derived from cone snail venom, a type of marine mollusc, is already used in the painkiller Ziconotide. The naturally-occurring toxin has a potency 1000-times that of morphine.

Venoms also have shown potential for use in next-generation coronary, blood pressure and heart disease medication.

In 2013, University of Queensland researchers identified new types of anticoagulants and compounds that open arteries and increase blood flow in the venom of the common vampire bat from Central and South America.

“It’s pretty neat that nature can turn 180-degrees and something that was once feared and harmful becomes something that is beneficial,” Mr Clemann said.

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Henry Sapiecha

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