TUCSON, AZ — Snakes are starting to play a big role in COVID-19 research. Scientists from the University of Arizona have discovered an enzyme, similar to one found in rattlesnake venom, that could be driving COVID-19 deaths.
"We found evidence that there was an enzyme, a snake-like enzyme, in the blood of people who were in extraordinarily high levels,” says Dr. Floyd Chilton, the senior author of the study with the University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Scientists have worked on this study for the past year and a half. It was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The snake-like enzyme is found in healthy people at low levels to prevent bacterial infections. In severe cases of COVID-19, it’s doing the opposite.
"These high levels of this enzyme are looking at those tissues in the organs and saying, ‘you look like a bacteria, let's shred your membranes. Let's put these organs out of their misery,’" says Dr. Chilton.
Dr. Chilton says what's even more remarkable is where we can go from here in the fight against the pandemic.
“Can we come up with specific therapeutics that will not care which variant is coming toward it? Can we come up with specific therapies to address this devastating disease?” says Dr. Chilton.
Researchers explain that current clinical trials on snake bites are helping in those efforts. They can possibly repurpose some of the treatments being tested. This could one day result in a viable option, other than vaccines, to prevent death in severe patients.
"That allows us to take a precision medicine approach to the disease. We can go into clinical trials and choose the people who are at risk of this mechanism and then, specifically treat those people,” says Dr. Chilton.
Their hope, regarding the next step, is an international multi-center clinical trial. They are working with global organizations to see how they can make that possible.
ABC15 asked a rattlesnake expert for his take on the study.
“For something that is almost as universally loathed as rattlesnakes, it seems fitting and interesting and ironic, that the venom that they have in rattlesnakes, might be the key in getting out of this situation,” says Bryan Hughes, owner of Rattlesnake Solutions.
You can find more information on the study here.