Milking venom from Australia’s deadly marine animals

  • Laura Chung/AFP, Cairns, Australia

Imagine what it feels like to have an elephant sitting on your chest. You can’t breathe, there’s a sense of impending doom, and the pain is so intense that you want to die.

You have just been stung by a small Irukandji jellyfish.

Jamie Seymour, a toxicologist at Australia’s James Cook University, said it was unlikely he would die, but he would wish he had died.

Photo: AFP

He should know – he’s been stabbed 11 times.

But Seymour’s job is riskier than most, extracting toxins from marine life to create life-saving antivenoms.

Dozens of Irukandji jellyfish, each the size of a sesame seed, float in an aquarium in a metal shed at a Queensland university.

Photo: AFP

In another aquarium there is a stonefish, the most poisonous fish in the world.

When the spines penetrate the skin, the animal loses consciousness from the pain, and the area around the wound turns black and dies.

The venom of stonefish is strong enough to kill humans, but there are no recorded deaths in Australia. Seymour is one of the survivors of the disaster.

His team conducts research to understand Australia’s most dangerous marine animals and keep people safe.

“Australia is without a doubt the most toxic continent in the world,” Mr Seymour said.

“When I talk to people, especially Americans, they’re surprised that we don’t all die at birth.” Seymour moves around the aquarium, its venom capable of killing a person within 10 minutes. He pointed out other deadly animals, such as the box jellyfish, which can cause cancer.

stings and bites

Although there are countless venomous animals found throughout Australia, fatalities are relatively rare.

According to the latest official data, there was an average of 32 animal-related deaths per year between 2001 and 2017, with the largest number of deaths occurring in horses and cattle.

Since 1883, only two deaths from Irukandji jellyfish and approximately 70 deaths from box jellyfish have been recorded.

By comparison, around 4,700 people died in drug, alcohol and motor vehicle-related incidents in Australia in 2022 alone, according to government data.

“So while it’s very possible to get stung or bitten by an animal in Australia, the chances of dying are very low,” Seymour said.

His facility is the only one that squeezes the venom out of these deadly marine animals and turns it into anti-venom.

In the case of the deadly box jellyfish, that process is difficult. Researchers must remove the tentacles, freeze-dry them, and collect the solidified venom. There is no anti-venom for Irukandji jellyfish.

Instead, doctors treat each symptom as it appears. The sooner you seek medical advice, the more likely your life will be saved.

In the case of stonefish, the process of extracting the venom is even more difficult. Researchers insert a syringe into the venom gland of a live fish and, while holding it in place with a towel, remove the thimble filled with the deadly fluid. They then send the venom to a facility in Victoria where it is processed into life-saving antivenom. First, facility staff inject small amounts of the venom into animals, such as horses, that produce natural antibodies over a six-month period.

The animal’s plasma is then removed, and the antibodies are extracted, purified, and reduced to human antivenom.

dead jelly

The anti-venom will be shipped to hospitals in Australia and some Pacific Islands to be administered in case of animal stings or bites.

“We have some of the best antivenoms in the world, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr Seymour said, noting the time and effort that went into manufacturing the serum in Australia.

Scientists also say climate change could increase the risk of stings, making antivenoms more necessary.

About 60 years ago, Irukandji jellyfish sting season in Australia was in November and December.

Because seawater temperatures remain high for a long time, jellyfish may persist into March.

Warming oceans are also pushing these deadly sea jellyfish and other marine animals farther south along Australia’s coast. Seymour’s students discovered that changes in temperature can also change the toxicity of a poison.

“For example, if you make an antivenom for an animal at 20 degrees Celsius, and you get bitten by an animal living in the wild at 30 degrees Celsius, the antivenom won’t be effective,” he says.

Research has also shown that the stinging creature’s venom can be used to treat a myriad of health conditions, including effectively curing rheumatoid arthritis in mice in two weeks.

But research in this area remains largely unfunded, and Seymour says research continues. “When you think about poison, think of it like a vegetable stew. There are a ton of different components in there,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is take these things apart and figure out what’s going on.”

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