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Pakistan - a dreamland for snake researchers

June 13, 2010

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Dr Takacs has travelled to133 countries, yet he believes, “The people of Pakistan are one of the friendliest in the world.” Most venom in Pakistan has never been studied in detail, “We are sitting on a toxin biodiversity goldmine that remains unexplored.” He cannot wait to return and after relishing nehari with tandoori naan, hit the trail with his local friends to explore the biomedical potentials of venomous snakes of Pakistan.

 

Did you know that the gyrating snake in the snake charmer's basket is the source of a drug that saves lives in a heart attack? Another snakes venom has been used to develop kits to diagnose blood clotting disorders.

 

More than 20 medicines and clinical tests come from snake, lizard, and marine snail venom ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes, from lupus to cancer pain with over a billion dollar sales. There is even a skin smoothening cosmetic developed from viper venom, which unlike Botox does not require an injection.

 

Over millions of years, snake venom has evolved to immobilise and kill prey and predator. It is natures most lethal mix of molecules — toxins in the venom target vital systems of the body like nerve-muscle communication or blood circulation and potently inhibit those functions. This precision-targeting of toxins is what makes venom superb for drugs. But high throughput methods to screen toxins were lacking — until now.

 

While there is a lack of reliable statistics, snakes of Pakistan cause approximately 40,000 reported bites with death estimations varying widely from over 1,000 to up to 20,000 a year. To reduce this number the specific and affordable antivenom must be available in hospitals, along with physicians properly trained in management of snake bites. People bitten by snakes need to seek prompt medical attention. Traditional medicine will not work. "If you are bitten then go to the hospital immediately. If not bitten, then the best thing you can do when seeing a snake is to back up five steps, then you are at a safe distance. Take a photo if you like, call a sapaira to remove it, but never try to kill it — often that would result in a bite".

 

As an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago and chasing venomous snakes around the world — to make new medication; I recently received the National Geographic Societys Emerging Explorer of the year 2010 award.

Since my childhood in Hungary, I have captured and kept reptiles. Now, geared as a pilot and scuba diver, facing wars and snake bites, I enjoy travelling to the world's most remote jungles, deserts and oceans to collect venom from snakes, scorpions and spiders. I participated in a technology that creates 'toxin libraries', with millions of new toxin variants after which this library is screened on a target that can determine the outcome of a disease. It is like making a million different keys, trying them out all at once and finding the one that opens the lock. For me, a new key is a toxin that looks promising for autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis, arthritis and diabetes.

 

With cobras and kraits, sea snakes and vipers, Pakistan is a dreamland for snake researchers. I have traversed the country from Sindh to Khunjerab collecting venom, bare-handedly catching kraits at night and teaming up with sapairas to hear their folk stories, some of which have significant scientific basis.