Tiny organs grown from snake stem cells produce real venom

Researchers grew tiny venom glands from nine different snake species, including the cape coral cobra pictured above.
Photo Credit: Michael D. Kern/Science Source

Snake venom can be deadly without proper treatment. Interestingly enough, it may also hold the key for treatments against pain, high blood pressure, and cancer according to one analysis. Despite this, scientists still do not understand much about the biology behind the wide range of different snake venoms, which can make it challenging to develop effective treatments in the event of snake bites.

Fortunately, a new study by Dr. Hans Clevers and his team at the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands could significantly aid the understanding of snake venom. Dr. Clevers and his team were able to grow miniature snake venom glands using snake stem cells. What’s more remarkable is that these “mini-organs” produced real venom!

Miniature, lab-grown snake venom glands
 Photo Credit: Ravian van Ineveld/Princess Maxima Center

In an article posted in Science Magazine, Dr. Clevers talks about how his study was navigating uncharted waters.

“Nobody knew anything about stem cells in snakes. We didn’t know if it was possible at all.”

To produce these “mini-organs”, the researchers removed the stem cells from the venom glands of nine different types of snake and placed them in a mixture of growth factors that contained different hormones and proteins. It turns out that the snake stem cells responded to the same factors used on human and mouse stem cells.

Eventually, the stem cells grew into little clumps of tissue and when the researchers removed the growth factors, they started to change into the same kind of cells that produce venom in the glands of snakes. Additionally, they were able to find that these “mini-organs” expressed similar genes as those observed in real venom glands.

The scientists were even able to test the nature of the “mini-organ” venom as well. A chemical and genetic analysis of the venom revealed that it matched the one made by real snakes. After testing this venom on mouse muscle cells and rat neurons, they also found that it damaged these cells similar to real venom.

The type of toxins and concentration levels can vary drastically in snake venom, even within the same species. This can make developing treatments challenging since they can only be used to combat one type of venom.

Dr. Clevers and his team now plan to study the complexities of venom and venom glands by compiling a “biobank” of frozen organoids from venomous reptiles around the world that could help researchers find broader treatments. With the aid of their newly developed “mini-organs”, all of this can be done without the handling of live, dangerous snakes, some of which are rare and difficult to keep in captivity.

The full results of this study were published in Cell.

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