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American Association for the Advancement of Science
A natural snake-bite antidote?
Snake bites and bee stings can be either painful or downright deadly, depending on which species is doing the biting, and sometimes whether the person being bitten is allergic to the venom.
New research in mice suggests that these bites and stings would be even more dangerous if not for a special defensive trick that the mouse's immune system can pull off.
**We interrupt this story to bring you an important message from the scientists who did this study. Anyone who will be around snakes or other venomous animals needs to be extremely careful, because they are still dangerous! It's very important to know which snakes are harmful and which ones aren't, says Stephen Galli of Stanford University.**
Dr. Galli and his colleagues studied mast cells, which are immune cells that contribute to the inflammation that's part of asthma, allergies and even the extreme, anaphylactic shock that can happen to some people with severe allergies to things like peanuts.
In these cases, the immune system gets mixed up and thinks its being attacked by something harmful. But, mast cells also do beneficial things in the body.
The scientists discovered that the cells also play a helpful role against certain snake and honeybee venoms. In their study they showed that the cells protected mice, making the venom's effects less harmful.
The cells released an enzyme that broke down dangerous components of the venom of a snake called the Israeli mole viper. Dr. Galli said that it might someday be possible to make better snake bite or bee sting treatments that are based on this type of enzyme. More research will be necessary to see if this is possible.
Dr. Galli thinks that this feature of the mast-cell defense system may have evolved, in animals that are prey to snakes or get stung by bees, partly as a way to help to protect against venom. This defense isn't foolproof or perfect, but it gives the prey animals a better chance of survival, especially if they get less than a "full dose" of venom in the bite of a poisonous snake.
Snakes are a natural study topic for Dr. Galli and his coauthor, Martin Metz of Stanford University, who both remember snakes being their very first scientific interest when they were children. Dr. Galli still has an essay he wrote in grade school. It describes the first sign he can remember that he wanted to be a scientist: he brought a snake into the house when he was just two years old!
The scientists' study appears in the 28 July 2006 issue of the journal Science.