In 1950, when antivenin was not available for most Australian snakes, a young man called Kevin Budden went to Cairns to catch Australia’s most venomous animal. He caught a specimen eating a rat, but was unable to get it into a sack as required. Consequently, and I swear I am not making this up, he hitchhiked to a friend’s house with his hand around the throat of the thrashing two-metre coastal taipan.
At the house he briefly lost his grip and was bitten. Before getting to hospital, where he died, Budden secured the snake in a bag and sent it on its way to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, where it was milked — an essential step to produce the antivenin, which has saved many lives (although not before nearly getting one of the researchers there as well).
I tell this story not because the combination of courage, self-sacrifice and lack of forward planning would fit well besides the Anzacs on the national curriculum, but because a vial containing the venom of the very snake that killed Budden has now been found and the contents shown to be undamaged by the passage of time.
Nor does this sample stand alone. Ten years ago venom researcher extraordinaire Associate Professor Bryan Fry found a box in the archives of the Australian Venom Research Unit filled with vials carefully labelled by Professor Struan Sutherland, whose work on antivenins, venom identification and first aid for bite victims has saved hundreds of lives.
Fry, now based at the University of Queensland, has compared the find to the missing years of Einstein’s journal, which were discovered around the same time. Some of the samples go back 80 years, to the pioneers of Australian reptile research. Remarkably, most retain their activity. In some cases the interest is purely historical, but in others it is much more.
Australian reptiles are under attack. Death adders, for example, are locally extinct in many areas where cane toads have arrived, since the toad’s poison is fatal to them. The loss of Bass Strait island populations of tiger snakes, to choose another example, may elicit tears only from the most enthusiastic reptile lover, but their disappearance is actually a loss to us all. Venoms are exceptionally complex things containing huge numbers of proteins and have proved a treasure-trove for medical research.
Just the fact that the venoms have remained active over such a long period of time could prove significant, particularly since Fry notes many were dried using out-of-date techniques. However, the real value from the discovery will come from the opportunity to investigate proteins that would otherwise have been lost. “Venoms evolve much faster than the animal,” Fry said. So populations isolated on islands as the oceans rose after the last Ice Age may have unique quirks that could cut years off drug discovery. With many of these populations now extinct or nearly so, some of these samples may be the only chance we get to investigate what the snakes were brewing over that time.
“It might be time for Fry to make sure he’s got access to a car with a really large boot.”
In some cases the applications are obvious. One of the main ways snakes subdue their prey is by causing catastrophic falls in blood pressure. The same approach, but in far more modest doses, is the key to Captopril, a breakthrough drug against hypertension. Others applications are more coincidental. Byetta is licensed to treat diabetes and is sometimes prescribed without licensing approval for obesity. As Fry noted: “It’s not as though the lizards are having their prey die of anorexia.”
It’s not surprising then that Fry, who has been known to travel to the Antarctic in the search of poisonous ocotopi, described publication of the work in Proteomics as “on a scale of 1-10, this has a coolness rating of 11”. He talked of his team getting “goosebumps” working on the sample from the snake that killed Budden.
There is, however, a moral that extends far beyond reptile research: don’t trash your archives. It is often hard to win funding to pay people to trawl through the trash and treasure out the back of a scientific institute, but surely no one actually advocates throwing things out unstudied? Sadly, not so. The Canadian government has condemned hundreds of thousands of files of unknown value to destruction by closing down seven of the country’s fisheries and oceans libraries.
Despite promises that all records would be digitised, wholesale dumping of records has been reported, and the fate of samples is unknown. Some scientists have taken to filling up their car boots with whatever they could rescue from the carnage. Possessing 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, Canada excels in fisheries research the way Australia does at venom.
The Harper government has gone to war with science with unmatched enthusiasm, sacking 2000 scientists under the guise of financial savings while channelling money to conservative religious organisations. Those who still have jobs have been gagged.
So far Australian archives have not been threatened in the same way. However, when it comes to science, Prime Minister Tony Abbott does seem to be taking Canadian PM Stephen Harper as a role model, having abolished the ministry for science, allied with Canada to derail global climate activities, derailed thousands of researchers’ careers in pursuit of an arbitrary target and announced an intent to overrule peer review in the funding of projects they can’t understand.
It might be time for Fry to make sure he’s got access to a car with a really large boot.
*Disclosure: Stephen Luntz has previously worked on electoral matters for the Greens