Snake venom shows promise as skin glue for closing life-threatening wounds

Scientists from Western University in London, Ont., the University of Manitoba and China have found a way to harness the blood-clotting properties of venom from a South American snake as a type of skin glue they say is so effective, it could stop life-threatening bleeding within a minute. 

Researchers from Ontario, Manitoba, China focus on harnessing healing properties of poison

Bothrops atrox, better known as the common lancehead, is a venomous species of pit viper found east of the Andes mountains in South America. In new research, its venom has been found to have glue-like properties. (Western University)

Scientists at Western University in London, Ont., and international collaborators have found a way to harness the blood-clotting properties of venom from a South American snake as a type of skin glue that they say is so effective, it could stop life-threatening bleeding within a minute.

The work also involves the University of Manitoba and the Army Medical University in Chongqing, China. It looks at the potential healing properties of an enzyme contained in the venom of the lancehead pit viper, known as batroxobin or reptilase.

The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science Advances.

Kibret Mequanint, a bioengineer at Western University, told CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre that scientists have managed to use an enzyme that makes the viper's venom deadly and flip it on its head. 

"Some venoms kill by thinning blood and others kill by affecting the neurological system," he said. "Reptilase is an enzyme known to induce blood clotting.
Kibret Mequanint, a bioengineer at Western University in London, Ont., says the lancehead's venom has been shown in the international research to possibly be useful as a therapeutic tool. (Western University)

"We said, 'What happens if we turn it around and use this as a therapeutic tool?' And lo and behold, here we are."

By using the blood-clotting effect of the enzyme in a gelatin, Mequanint said, the international team of scientists has designed a type of skin glue that can be packaged inside a small tube. 

In the field, medical personnel can then squeeze the tube into a wound, shine a light on the gel to activate the enzyme with a laser pointer or smartphone flashlight, and in a few seconds, the gel will transform into a form of liquid stitches with potential life-saving applications. 

"All you need to do is squeeze this gel from a small bottle to the tissue and shine a light to form a very tough and very strongly bonded tissue adhesive that stops major bleeding in about 45 seconds." 

The lancehead's unique venom

In a University of Manitoba release, one of the researchers, Malcolm Xing, says it was an experience in his own childhood that inspired him to want to research the properties of snake venom.

"When I was a kid, I saw poisonous snake venom clot the blood very fast," the release quotes Xing as saying. "The scenario has haunted me for years. Then one day [two years ago], I thought, 'Why not consider the enzyme extracted from snake venom for highly efficient hemostasis.' I called my collaborators to discuss the possibility. We then developed a visible light-triggered gelatin gel with the enzyme. I am so proud the development could have enormous potential to save people's life." 

Failing to stop bleeding in trauma and surgery significantly contributes to mortality, the release notes.

"This promising discovery aims to improve the healing time of injuries through bioadhesion inspired by the blood clotting of activity from a highly poisonous snake venom."

In severe bleeding, 45 seconds is a matter of life and death.- Kibret Mequanint, Western University researcher

Researchers also say why the lancehead snake in particular was used in their work. 

"The lancehead snake venom is unlike other snake venoms as they kill their prey by thinning their blood or causing toxic neurological symptoms," the University of Manitoba release says.

"This snake's venom is fatal due to the coagulation of the blood that occurs when introduced to the bloodstream. Although most human bodies can prevent serious blood loss from minor injuries through the body's clotting mechanism, the same ability is not enough when it comes to serious or life-threatening injuries." 

The tissue glue created by the researchers resists being washed away by blood, has 10 times the adhesive strength and seals twice as quickly as fibrin glue, which is traditionally used by field surgeons to fuse tissues together. 

"In severe bleeding, 45 seconds is a matter of life and death," Mequanint said. 

The bioengineer said the next phase of the research will involve studying the enzyme-enabled gel in a clinical setting, with commercial production and widespread use of the product possible within the next five years.