Scenario: You're working in your garden, moving rocks around when, suddenly a deadly scorpion stings you. What do you do? A) Rush to the hospital. B) Suck on the wound. C) Sit around and study your own symptoms until you're on the verge of death. If you answered A or B, you're likely a normal, if slightly misinformed, person. If you answered C, you must be Alejandro Alagón (welcome!). According to a story in Scientific American, when he was stung outside of his Cuernavaca, Mexico home, Alagón went inside, recorded his symptoms as they became progressively worse and—when the end seemed near—injected himself with an antivenom he and his team had designed at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Half an hour later, he was fine.
Alagón, a molecular biologist and antivenom researcher, clearly put a lot of faith in the formula. And he should: The team’s antivenom for scorpion stings recently received FDA approval and two more—for black window and rattlesnake bites—are in the FDA’s stage III trails.
Most importantly, these new formulas are safer. And here’s why:
There is a problem with the original recipe developed in the 1950s. To make antivenom, animals with powerful immune defenses (such as horses) are injected with venom, and researchers then collect and purify their natural antibodies. The problem lies in the antibodies' Y-shaped structure. The v-shaped portion of the Y can cause negative reactions in humans, even death. Although these reactions are rare, some doctors prefer not to use the formula and opt to simply treat the pain.
For the new antivenoms, researchers remove the v-shaped tail portion with the protein-eating enzyme pepsin. Pepsin allows scientists to chemically cut the "y" exactly at the joint and to therefore eliminate the negative side effects.
The new formulas are also more cost-effective. And this fact allows researchers to cast their net wider, to design antivenoms that treat bites and stings from spiders and snakes in Africa, where many pharmaceutical companies don’t currently see a market.