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From Fang to Pharmacy: Snakes Milked for Remedies

REUTERS

First, catch an inland taipan and hold the body of the world’s most venomous snake firmly between your thighs.

Then grab its head. You get only one chance.

Now try to persuade the very angry six-foot snake to spit its venom into a small bottle.

Finally, let go of the head and swing the writhing taipan back into its cage.

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To watch--from a safe distance--as Peter Mirtschin catches and milks the inland taipan is to witness the ultimate in hands-on work experience.

Mirtschin is the largest supplier of snake venom in Australia, a country with 120 species of snake, 70% of which are poisonous.

He keeps 200 serpents of varying size and ferocity in an air-conditioned barn outside Tanunda, a small town in the Barossa Valley wine district, an hour’s drive from Adelaide.

After six years supplying venom to researchers and hospitals worldwide, Mirtschin is making good money. But the easygoing Australian agrees the job has its drawbacks.

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“I’ve been bitten seriously twice, once by an inland taipan,” Mirtschin said. “That time I was in the hospital within 12 minutes and was OK.”

An inland taipan is about 50 times more poisonous than an Indian cobra.

“The second time I was got by a death adder. It took 20 minutes to find an antivenin, and my heart was going mad, my eyelids were dropping, and I was slurring my speech. That one was a bit life-threatening.”

While venoms are used for antivenins, their chief application is in research.

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Mirtschin sends freeze-dried venom to scientists in Switzerland, Taiwan and the United States. A taipan provides about 120 milligrams (four-thousandths of an ounce) of dried venom from a milking.

A snake gets milked depending on its ability to manage stress. Some are left for six weeks, although they replenish supplies within two days.

The potent Australian supplies help scientists work out the mysteries of the human body’s neuromuscular system via the venom’s neurotoxins.

“Venoms are like soups. They’re full of goodies,” Mirtschin said.

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“They are the toolbox, spanners and screwdrivers microbiologists use to manipulate the nervous system. Most are different and are very specific in what they do and which signal to the brain they block.” Venom is also used to research clotting and anti-clotting agents.

Mirtschin at present supplies four separate neurotoxins, including one from the inland taipan, which are refined by a company in Adelaide associated with the South Australian Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science.

Two of the neurotoxins Mirtschin’s company Venom Supplies offers--from the tiger snake and ordinary taipan--have given scientists much of their information about the nervous system over the past 20 to 30 years, he says.

“In the next three years we hope to have built up a portfolio of 20 toxins, but we will have to evolve different processes to extract them,” Mirtschin said.

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“Value-added venom” is Mirtschin’s money-spinner. Tiger snake venom in its crude form costs $200 to $300 a gram. From one gram, Mirtschin can produce 55 to 60 milligrams of neurotoxins which sell for $45 a milligram.

The next and even more lucrative step could be splitting toxins--for instance taipoxin from taipans is made up of three subunits--and producing a commercial medical product with venom as its base.

Despite the financial returns, Mirtschin’s first love remains the snakes themselves, all of which he has either caught or bred.

“They are beautiful creatures, with a streamline design that is perfect for the main goal of wildlife--survival.

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“I plow a lot of revenue from Venom Supplies back into conservation, that’s my main aim. My ultimate goal is to make major contributions to reptile conservation projects.”


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