A snake venom-based first-aid gel could become the saviour of accident victims experiencing uncontrolled bleeding

Proteins from the venom of Australia’s deadly eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis), and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) found across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, could be used to accelerate the body’s natural blood clotting process, according to a new study published in the journal Advanced Health Care Materials.

Uncontrolled bleeding is the second most significant cause of death worldwide from traumatic injury. Now, a biomaterials research team from the University of Queensland (UQ) has developed a gel containing two snake venom proteins that can act as a wound sealant.

The gel initiates blood clotting in well under 60 seconds and could be sold in pharmacies, added to first-aid kits, and be used by paramedics or military personnel in combat zones to stop bleeding while a patient is being taken to hospital.

“As many as 40 per cent of trauma-related deaths are the result of uncontrolled bleeding, and this figure is much higher when it comes to military personnel with serious bleeding in a combat zone,” says corresponding author Dr Amanda Kijas, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) at UQ.

“Nature has created the most elegant and sophisticated mechanisms, and we can repurpose them to save people from dying due to uncontrolled bleeding.”

Why snake venom?

Current, first-aid treatments using gauze products and tissue glues often do not stop bleeding during an emergency.

“When a traumatic injury occurs, the complexity of the healing process overloads the body’s capacity to control the bleeding,” Kijas says.

Blood coagulation, also known as clotting, is the process by which blood changes from a liquid into a gel to form a blood clot; red blood cells and platelets form a plug at the injury site and a mesh of fibrin protein strands strengthen it.

A scanning electron micrograph of a human blood clot.
Scanning electron micrograph of a blood clot in human blood, showing red blood cells (red), platelets (pink), and fibrin (white) magnification x2000. Credit: Micro Discovery/Getty Images

The protein ecarin, found in the venom of the saw-scaled viper, is a pro-coagulant that rapidly initiates fibrin blood clotting, whereas the protein textilinin – from the eastern brown snake’s venom – prevents the breakdown of these blood clots.

Pro-coagulant proteins can be deadly when delivered in the form of venom, causing coagulation inside the veins and arteries, which stops blood from flowing.

Instead, the research team has created a synthetic hydrogel that can deliver these two proteins to a wound site where their properties can help induce clotting when it’s needed.

Blood clots three times more quickly

The gel is thermo-responsive, meaning it remains a liquid when stored in a cool place (below 22°C) and transitions into a firm gel above temperatures of 22°C. This allows for both easy application to irregular wounds and straightforward removal afterwards.

Testing the gel in mice wound models showed it allows a stable clot to be formed within 60 seconds – compared with normal clot formation in eight minutes. It even controls bleeding in the presence of the blood thinner warfarin, reducing the bleed volume from 48% to 12%.

“The research shows there is five times less blood loss, and clots form three times more quickly when the venom gel is applied, compared to the body’s natural process,” says Kijas. “This even includes people with haemophilia and those using blood thinners.”

A saw-scaled viper flicking its tongue, their venom contains the protein ecarin.
The saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Credit: kristianbell/Getty Images

The venom gel is currently in pre-clinical testing and is being scaled up toward commercial application in collaboration with Professor Mark Midwinter from UQ’s School of Biomedical Sciences.

“We hope this gel will accelerate the wound-healing processes needed for clotting and reducing blood flow, ultimately boosting the body’s capacity to heal large wounds,” concludes Kijas.

The research team is also exploring, with Metro North Health at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and Herston Biofabrication Institute, how the technology could treat burns and trauma injuries.

Please login to favourite this article.