Utrecht-based researchers succeed in growing snake-venom glands in a laboratory

ifklierorganoïden van de Aspidelaps lubricus slang - credit: Joep Beumer, Jens Puschhof, Yorickpost, copyright Hubrecht Institute
The traditional way to collect venom involves handling the snake and encouraging it to bite on to a receptacle, as shown here with the sharp-nosed viper, one of the species used to make the venom gland organoids. © Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

Every year, 100,000 people die after being bitten by snakes and another 400,000 people become physically disabled. Utrecht-based researchers have developed a new technique that could make it possible to study the consequences of snake bites in the future, as well as gain a better understanding of the secrets of the venom. The researchers succeeded in growing the venom glands of snakes in the lab (organoïds) and in actually making these glands produce and secrete snake venom.

The ancient Greeks were already inspired to make medicines out of components of snake venom

On the one hand, snake venom can be a rich source for medicines, on the other hand, they can also have disastrous consequences. The ancient Greeks were already inspired to make medicines out of components of snake venom, such as medicines that lower blood pressure and prevent bleeding.

But even in modern medicine, it is still a challenge to utilise the full potential of snake venom to both develop medicines and protect people from its deadly effects. A number of important obstacles is formed by the difficult and dangerous process of milking snakes, and by the challenge of studying and modifying venom in the glands of a snake.

It's incredible to see something that started with our curiosity change into a technique with so many possible applications.

Three PhD candidates in the group led by the Utrecht-based professor Hans Clevers were inspired by colleagues who grew miniature organs in a lab, the so-called organoids. They wondered whether or not this would also be possible with reptiles, and whether or not they would also be able to make venom in the lab. In collaboration with snake experts in Leiden, Liverpool and Amsterdam, they collected venom glands from nine different snakes to try and grow miniature versions of these organs from. They presented their findings, and the successful result, in a paper that was published on Thursday 23 January in the scientific journal Cell.


Yorick Post, Jens Puschhof and Joep Beumer tell about their research into snake-venom organoids
It may be possible that tissues from other vertebrates such as fish or lizards can also be grown in this way.

The discoveries made by these researchers can possibly have far-reaching consequences. Venom produced by venom-gland organoids can possibly be used to produce antivenom, as well as develop new medicines based on components of the venom. Further research in order to further develop these applications is currently ongoing.

On top of that, the fact that they were able to develop reptile organoids for the first time could mean that other vertebrate tissues (such as lizards or fish) can possibly also be grown in this way. The researchers recently set up a big collaboration project together with reptile expert Freek Vonk of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center to grow  organoids of 50 poisonous reptiles, snakes and other poisonous animals.