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Snake Venom and Blood Clots: New Hydrogel Could Benefit Surgical Procedures, Researchers Say

Oct 27, 2015 03:56 PM EDT
Pit Viper
The venom of pit vipers may improve the ability of a hydrogel known as SB50 to quickly stop a wound from bleeding and promote healing.
(Photo : Flickr: Rushen)

The venom of two species of South American pit vipers may help doctors regulate the blood clotting process by improving the efficiency of a nanofiber hydrogel called SB50, a new study reveals. When researchers from Rice University infused the hydrogel with a snake venom known as batroxobin, they were able to stop wounds from bleeding, according to a news release

Essentially, the venum infused hydrogel is administered as a liquid and quickly turns into a gel that conforms to the site of a wound, sealing it and promoting clotting within seconds, researchers explained. Their discovery was recently published in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering. This new hydrogel could be used for emergency surgeries, especially on people who take "blood-thinners" or anticoagulants. 

People take anticoagulants primarily to dissolve unwanted and often dangerous blood clots. When blood clots in an unwanted way, it can cause a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This condition is caused by a blood clot that forms in leg veins and causes pain and swelling. If blood clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream, it can cause damage to lungs (pulmonary embolism) that causes shortness of breath, chest pain and may result in death. Anticoagulants are good for combatting this condition but thinning the blood can also cause patients to bleed out during surgery. 

"It's interesting that you can take something so deadly and turn it into something that has the potential to save lives," Jeffrey Hartgerink, lead author of the study from Rice University, said in his release.

Pit vipers are a very diverse group of venomous snakes with wide-spread distribution ranging from deserts to rainforests. The snakes are specifically distinguished by the presence of a heat-sensing pit organ located between the eye and the nostril on either side of the head, which essentially helps them hunt for prey.

Batroxobin was originally recognized for its properties as a coagulant in 1936. Since then, it has been used in various therapies as a way to remove excess fibrin proteins from the blood, which thins it to treat thrombosis. Also, batroxobin has been used to determine blood-clotting time when patients are taking the anticoagulant drug heparin. 

"Heparin blocks the function of thrombin, an enzyme that begins a cascade of reactions that lead to the clotting of blood," Hartgerink explained in the release. "Batroxobin is also an enzyme with similar function to thrombin, but its function is not blocked by heparin. This is important because surgical bleeding in patients taking heparin can be a serious problem. The use of batroxobin allows us to get around this problem because it can immediately start the clotting process, regardless of whether heparin is there or not."

To avoid the risk of other contaminant toxins, the batroxobin researchers used in their study was not extracted from snakes. Instead, researchers used a genetically modified bacteria and then purified it, researchers explained. When combining the batroxobin with their synthetic, self-assembling nanofibers, they found that the liquid turns into a gel after being loaded into a syringe and injected at the site of a wound. Ultimately, this stopped the wound from bleeding in as little as six seconds. Hydrogel may also promote healing and the growth of natural tissues, researchers explained. 

"Its (batroxobin) properties have been well-known for many decades. What we did was combine it with the hydrogel we've been working on for a long time," Hartgerink added in a statement. "We think SB50 has great potential to stop surgical bleeding, particularly in difficult cases in which the patient is taking heparin or other anti-coagulants. SB50 takes the powerful clotting ability of this snake venom and makes it far more effective by delivering it in an easily localized hydrogel that prevents possible unwanted systemic effects from using batroxobin alone."

Approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is required before SB50 can be used on patients. While batroxobin is already approved, Hartgerink believes that several more years of testing their specific hydrogel is necessary. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Samantha on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13

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