Finding New Treatments for Venomous Bites and StingsPosted on: November 11, 2010 in Research & Discovery
In a plastic container on pediatrician Leslie Boyer’s desk, a dozen bark scorpions scramble over a piece of cardboard. A sting from the pale-colored insect won’t kill an adult, but it can be fatal for small children. For the last ten years, the Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology and the Department of Pediatrics has been working on research to find better treatment protocols for bark scorpion bites as well as the bites and stings of other land-based venomous creatures.
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The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, housed in the College of Pharmacy, hears from 70,000 callers a year. More than 20 percent are seeking advice about bites or stings. Serving as medical director of the Poison Center, Boyer became frustrated that there were questions she couldn’t answer simply because no research had been done. She couldn’t tell a physician if it was better to give a three-year-old child anti-venom or a sedative to sleep it off.
So Boyer founded the VIPER Institute—VIPER stands for Venom Immunochemistry and Emergency Response—to look for answers. Partnering with colleagues in Mexico, where bark scorpion stings are often fatal to young children, she started a research project in Arizona to test a new anti-venom. Today, hospitals across the state use an anti-venom that is provided for free, as a gift to the people of Arizona, by the Mexican, family-owned company that manufactures it.
Dan Massey, a current College of Pharmacy resident, was a student enrolled in the college's professional program when a puzzling call came in to the Poison Center. A little boy had been stung by what resembled a scorpion while on a family camping trip in New Mexico. But there had never been sightings of bark scorpions in New Mexico, so they couldn’t be sure if they should treat it with the anti-venom.
“Before I knew it,” Boyer remembers, “Dan had jumped in his car and driven to New Mexico.” He found the area teeming with scorpions and brought back a sample for testing. After milking their venom, he took it to the biochemistry lab in Cuernavaca, Mexico to have it analyzed. He was able to confirm that New Mexico does have a population of bark scorpions with subtly different markings, but equally potent venom. Massey later met with hospital staff in New Mexico and educated physicians and pharmacists about the potential danger of the venomous insects, urging them to stock the anti-venom.
In Africa, Asia and Australia, where venomous stings and bites are often fatal, Boyer is working to find new anti-venoms and better treatment practices for victims. “We are fundamentally increasing knowledge for everyone about this amazing world that we live in,” says Boyer, “and at the same time, using our knowledge to improve the lives of everyone that will come in the future.”