Snake man's venom habit holds hope for new an­ti­dote

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Pauline FROISSART

LON­DON, (AFP) - For nearly 30 years, Lon­don- based rep­tile en­thu­si­ast and mu­si­cian Steve Lud­win has been in­ject­ing snake venom -- a prac­tice that has al­most killed him. It may now help save thou­sands of lives, as re­searchers search for a new an­ti­dote based on his body's re­sponse to the toxic flu­ids.

“It sounds very crazy what I am do­ing but it turns out that it po­ten­tially has lots of health ben­e­fits,” Lud­win, the tat­tooed 51-year-old told AFP in the liv­ing room of his home in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal.

Lud­win demon­strated his decades-old habit by firmly hold­ing the head of a green Pope's tree viper -- Trimeresu­rus popeio­rum -- and ex­tract­ing a few drops of its venom. Min­utes later, he in­jected the fluid into his arm us­ing a sy­ringe.

Over the years Lud­win has in­jected the venom of some of the world's most dan­ger­ous snakes, in­clud­ing the black mamba and co­bras. He claimed it has strength­ened his im­mune sys­tem so much he has not suf­fered from a cold in 15 years. But it has not been all pos­i­tive.

“I have had quite a few acci- dents”, Lud­win said, re­call­ing he once ended up in a Lon­don hos­pi­tal's in­ten­sive care unit for three days fol­low­ing an over­dose. “It's a very very dan­ger­ous thing to do, I don't en­cour­age peo­ple to do it”.

“The sen­sa­tion of in­ject­ing snake venom is not pleas­ant at all. It's ex­treme pain”, said Lud­win. Lud­win's unique be­hav­iour is the sub­ject of a short film at a new ex­hi­bi­tion on venom that opened at Lon­don's Nat­u­ral History Mu­seum on Fri­day. His habit has taken on new mean­ing in re­cent years after a team of re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Copen­hagen em­barked on pro­duc­ing an anti-venom us­ing his an­ti­bod­ies.

“When he in­jects venom, his im­mune sys­tem re­sponds,” Brian Lohse, a pro­fes­sor at the fac­ulty of health and medical sci­ences at the Univer­sity of Copen­hagen, said in a phone in­ter­view. “What we ex­pect is to find copies of his an­ti­bod­ies, iso­late them, test them, and even­tu­ally set up a pro­duc­tion of them.” Four full-time re­searchers, who be­gan work in 2013, ex­pect to com­plete the project within a year.

If suc­cess­ful, it would be the first hu­man-de­rived anti-venom made from a donor who has in­jected him­self with dif­fer­ent snake ven­oms. An­ti­dotes to date have been har­nessed by col­lect­ing an­ti­bod­ies from an­i­mals, usu­ally horses, that have been given venom.

Lohse said he hopes to dis­trib­ute the new anti- venom free of charge with the sup­port of gov­ern­ments or non-profit or­gan­isa- tions. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, snake bites are a “ne­glected” pub­lic health is­sue. It es­ti­mates around 5.4mn peo­ple world­wide are bit­ten by snakes ev­ery year, and be­tween 81,000 and 138,000 die.

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