The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency is looking for a “universal antivenom.” A bite from a poisonous creature can be extremely painful or even fatal.
And the risk of getting bitten is very real. Survival training can include a nip from a non-venomous snake so you what to do in an emergency—as seen in the picture below.
The U.N. World Health Organization records approximately 2.5 million snake bites each year. At least 100,000 victims die and 300,000 more need amputations.
Troops should expect to encounter venomous snakes, as well as spiders, scorpions and insects in the field. Marine Corps Intelligence Activity country handbooks—in use across the U.S. Defense Department—feature entire sections on deadly creatures.
But existing treatments have serious problems. For starters, current antivenoms are expensive to manufacture and can be unreliable.
DARPA’s project description also says “venomous bites requires correct identification of the venomous species to select the appropriate anti-venom, but identification of the specific species is frequently problematic or mistaken.”
In other words, if an Army Special Forces soldier does gets bit they might be able to figure out what kind of animal did it. Existing antivenoms only work on bites from certain types of critters and taking the wrong one probably won’t help at all.
Matching the toxins and therapies isn’t the only issue either. “If an antivenom is available for an identified species, it must be administered in a higher echelon military treatment facility in part due to the risk of severe adverse reactions such as serum sickness and hypersensitivity,” according to DARPA.
This means that a field medic will never have any antivenom of any kind. Evacuating a soldier to some sort of hospital takes up valuable time and resources.
The proposed “broad-spectrum” drug would work in the field and on various bites. The Pentagon’s futuristic technology lab wants researchers to focus on threats in Africa and the Pacific.
DARPA is also encouraging scientists to use various different medical approaches. For instance, a generic serum might attack toxins with “aptamers, engineered proteins, nucleic acid vaccines, or other nanotherapeutic-based technologies.”
The program requires rigorous testing of any new remedy, including on animals. The Pentagon also needs clear plans for getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve the meds.
In the end, a pharmaceutical company would take over mass production. This company could sell the drug to hospitals and private citizens as well—potentially saving thousands of lives.
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