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Scientists map genome of Indian cobra: How does it help fight snakebite

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New Delhi, Jan 09: Snakebite, envenoming is a serious and neglected tropical disease that causes nearly 50,000 deaths in India every year. This leads to significant mortality in the country but received little attention from the government.

The deaths are primarily attributed to four snake varieties - Indian Cobra, Russel's viper, saw-scaled viper and Indian common krait, infamously described as the "big four."

Scientists map genome of Indian cobra: How does it help fight snakebite

Scientists from India and their collaborators abroad have sequenced the genome of the highly poisonous Indian cobra, in a feat that may go a long way in reducing mortality and disability from snake bites.

Snake venoms are complex protein mixtures encoded by several gene families and these proteins function synergistically to cause rapid paralysis or death in prey.

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How does decoding the genome help?

The scientists have identified 19 key toxin genes, the only ones that should matter in snakebite treatment. They stress the need to leverage this knowledge for the creation of antivenom using synthetic human antibodies.

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    The study has led to the development of new safer and more effective antivenoms.

    It could spur new efforts in the decades-long battle to limit the global toll of snakebite, which kills more than 100,000 each year.

    Outdated procedure

    At present, antivenom is produced by immunising horses with extracted snake venom and is based on a process developed over 100 years ago.

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    "It is about time we modernise anti-venom development by leveraging genomics, recombinant protein expression, and synthetic antibody development technologies. The Indian cobra genome and the catalogue of target toxins are a blueprint needed to do this," Professor R. Manjunatha Kini of NUS Biological Sciences explains.

    "It will provide a complete platform for developing a safe, universal anti-venom for snakebite victims all over India and neighbouring countries," Kini told IANS.

    How big is the problem?

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around five million snake bites occur each year, although venom is only injected in just over half of cases.

    From blindness to amputations, the snake bite leaves many life crippled. The WHO describes such cases as among the most neglected tropical diseases.

    Rural population, especially the poor are at particular risk from snake bites, as they often lack access to antidotes or may turn to traditional treatments.

    Inadequate treatment is a key factor behind such a high death toll.

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