Coming to a Lab Near You: Animal-Free Testing of Lethal Neurotoxins

Venomous snakes are a threat not only to humans, but to pet dogs and cats as well; an estimated 300,000 dogs and cats are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the United States.  The bites from these venomous snakes can cause severe injury and death to companion animals so pet owners living in regions that are home to venomous snakes often opt to get their pets vaccinated with the controversial* rattlesnake vaccine.  The downside to these anti-venom vaccines, as well as emergency medical treatment for humans and pets who are bitten, is that the vaccines need to be tested on lab animals. But that may soon change.

Animal testing may no longer be required to assess a group of deadly neurotoxins.  That is because a new technique just developed could replace conventional methods of testing paralytic neurotoxins, which requires euthanasia of the test subjects.  Testing of paralytic neurotoxins is not only critical for research into anti-venoms such as from deadly snake bites, but also for the treatment of a wide array of diseases and conditions like colitis (temple pit viper venom, for instance, has an unusual cross-reactivity for the human alpha-5 receptor, which is a major target for conditions such as colitis).

“The old method, while extremely efficient, is limited in that it’s slow and requires the euthanisation of animals in order to obtain the necessary tissue. Our new method uses optical probes dipped into a solution containing the venoms and we measure the binding to these probes — the critical factor — by analysing changes in the light reflected back. It’s going to reduce the numbers of animals used for research testing, but it also has significant biomedical implications.”

-Associate Professor Bryan Fry, University of Queensland Venom Evolution Lab

*The rattlesnake vaccine is controversial for two reasons: (1) it is limited in its protection; it does not protect pets from bites from venomous snakes such as water moccasin, Mojave rattlesnake, or Coral snake, and (2) the vaccine’s effectiveness lacks rigorous scientific testing, relying instead on anecdotal reports from pet owners.


Journal Reference: Christina N. Zdenek, Richard J. Harris, Sanjaya Kuruppu, Nicholas J. Youngman, James S. Dobson, Jordan Debono, Muzaffar Khan, Ian Smith, Mike Yarski, David Harrich, Charlotte Sweeney, Nathan Dunstan, Luke Allen, Bryan G. Fry. A Taxon-Specific and High-Throughput Method for Measuring Ligand Binding to Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors. Toxins, 2019; 11 (10): 600 DOI: 10.3390/toxins11100600