AIMMS researchers grow snake venom glands in the lab

For the first time in history, scientists have succeeded in growing organoids from reptilian stem cells which can produce venomous molecules.

02/03/2020 | 1:27 PM

This is an important step to better treat snake bites. One of the researchers involved is evolutionary biologist Freek Vonk, who was appointed endowed professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at AIMMS (VU Amsterdam) on 1 February 2020. The international team of researchers led by Professor Hans Clevers from the Hubrecht Institute published the groundbreaking results of this research in the scientific journal Cell.

Stem cells as a basis
The researchers used adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells from venomous gland tissue from venomous snakes as the basis for the organoids. With a specific mix of growth factors, they allowed the organoid cells to grow and divide over long periods of time. The researchers studied the mRNA of the organoids and compared that with mRNA from venomous gland cells. It was found that the organoid cells have similar cell types to the examined tissues of snakes. The organoid cells were also found to be able to produce venomous molecules. The researchers were very happy with this result: "We had hoped for this. We want to produce venomous molecules in the lab to save animals. With this system we can also better understand different venom-secreting cell types in the venom gland."

Prevent deaths
The researchers used highly toxic snake species to cultivate these organoids, including the Cape coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi, see image). The cultured cells can be used as venomous-producing factories. Researchers can use this to develop new treatments against snake bites, which pose a threat to people worldwide. In developing countries, more than one hundred thousand people die each year from a snake bite.

Draining snake venom
From the VU Amsterdam, analytical chemist Jeroen Kool and evolution biologist Freek Vonk contributed their knowledge and expertise in the biological and analytical field. Freek Vonk: “This is a major step in the scientific research into venom. We are now for the first time able, in the lab, under controlled conditions, to tap infinite quantities of snake venom through our organoids. We can also study the fine molecular processes involved in the production of venom in the venom gland. That opens up many possibilities in the field of drug development."

Natural medicine cabinet
"Natural toxins such as snake venom are a great source of potential new drugs," Vonk continued. “Evolution has already done all the hard work, and over the past millions of years has transformed these substances into refined and extremely powerful molecules. Using modern techniques, it is up to us to dive deep into this natural medicine cabinet to see what we can still find. The organoids thereby form a new and unique platform with which we can produce and study these molecules."


Photo of cape coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi), available from Ryanvanhuyssteen (CC BY-SA 3.0)