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Don't cringe at the sight of a snake! Researchers in Oman disclose that these feared reptiles, found in urban/rural areas as well as desert sands in the sultanate, may actually hold the key to a biomedical breakthrough that will soon tackle the most dreaded disease on the planet -- cancer.

A small team of researchers at the University of Nizwa (UON) is currently studying the possibility of using snake venom as a formidable treatment for cancer, the incidence of which has been steadily rising in Oman over the past few decades.

The team, comprising Dr Suleiman al Hashmi, head of the Biomedical Sciences Unit, Seyad Farook, animal facility specialist, Hilal al Naabi, a plants specialist and Ahmed al Busaidi, technician -- UON Chair of Oman's Medicinal Plants and Marine, spend long hours everyday at the university's Natural and Medical Sciences Research Centre studying the characteristics of various venoms and the possibility of channelising their deadly properties for the destruction of cancerous cells.

Snake venom is said to have the highest toxicity potential which makes it an option in the development of anti-cancer agents.

Worldwide, several researches with regard to the action of snake venoms on tumour cells have been conducted, though conclusive evidence is awaited.

Snake venom is a complex mixture of enzymes, peptides, carbohydrates, minerals and proteins of low molecular mass. Studies indicate that components of snake venoms can not only be used in the treatment of cancer, but also conditions like arthritis, thrombosis, multiple sclerosis, pain, neuromuscular disorders, blood and cardiovascular disorders, infections and inflammatory diseases.

Dr Suleiman said, "This facility is part of the Natural and Medical Sciences Research Centre headed by Prof Ahmed al Harrasi.

"Currently, we are conducting research with snakes, especially with regard to their venom, for education, research and for producing anti-venom in the near future. At a later stage, we plan to include research on other animals/birds as well."

He further explained that each snake produces a different type of venom; cobras, for example, produce neurotoxic venom (affecting the nervous system) while other snakes may produce venom that is myotoxic (affecting muscles) or cytotoxic (affecting cells). "People usually view snakes as dangerous and venomous but they don't see the other side - venom can actually be used for treating many diseases," he added.

Forty per cent of the snakes found across Oman are venomous while worldwide only 20 per cent snakes are venomous, Dr Suleiman said, adding that most snakes do not harm humans, unless provoked or harmed.

"Around 22 different categories of snakes have been identified in the sultanate of which nine were found to be venomous. Currently, research with venom in Oman is at its infancy but we plan to test its efficacy for anti-cancer treatments as well as other diseases. We also plan to extract keratin from snake skin which is useful for wound healing," he disclosed.

Dr Suleiman further pointed out that cytotoxic venoms are considered ideal for attacking cancer cells, but it has not yet been established whether they can be used to destroy cancer cells without affecting normal cells or used to boost the immune system for tackling cancerous growths, instead of using chemotherapy or radiotherapy which has many side effects.

Farook, who hails from Sri Lanka and has been working with experts and herpetologists from different countries over the past few decades, added that there is evidence that snake venom can be used for the cure of many diseases.

"I have read about a patient from Mexico, who was paralysed after a car accident but regained mobility after being bitten by a poisonous snake.

"Doctors were surprised at his recovery but it indicated that the venom from the snake bite had been instrumental in his cure," Farook said.

In Sri Lanka, cobra venom has been used in the treatment of various conditions, but medical research has yet to attain conclusive evidence, he added.

Meanwhile, Ahmed al Busaidi, who is also an adventurer and has visited many sites in Dhofar region where he has captured snakes of different types, said he has handed these over to the centre for research purposes.

The snakes most commonly found in Oman include the Arabian cobra, saw scaled viper, puff adder, wadi racer, tree snakes, sand vipers, sand boa, cat snake etc.

Farook, who has taught his team how to handle snakes and effectively extract venom, cautions that it is very important to be extremely alert while handling snakes. Besides using protective gear like boots and gloves, paying utmost attention to the snake's mannerism and movements helps in understanding its intent and taking timely precautions, he said.

He also disclosed that currently anti-venom for treating snake bites by five main venomous species in the region has to be imported from Saudi Arabia. However, it will be a great boon if Oman could produce its own anti-venom for treating snake/scorpion bites, he said.

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Publication:The Week (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:7OMAN
Date:Mar 7, 2019
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