Hugh Alistair Reid’s interest in the medical problems of snake bite began after he joined Penang General Hospital, Malaya as the consultant physician in 1952. He conducted several epidemiological and clinical studies on bites by sea snakes (Enhydrina schistosa) and the Malayan pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma) and was soon a world authority. In 1961, he founded the Penang Institute of Snake and Venom Research, which amongst other activities, supplied venom from locally caught sea snakes to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne to prepare the first antivenom against this particular snake venom.
The next year, Reid, together with Findlay Russell and Paul Saunders, founded the International Society of Toxinology . Coincident with the award of the Order of the British Empire in 1963, he joined the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and founded the Venom Research Unit – whose objective was ‘research to improve the treatment of envenoming’. The recruitment of David Theakston in 1974 was the start of decades of research on biological, epidemiological, diagnostic and clinical aspects of snake bite in West Africa and elsewhere, and the designation of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine as a World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for the Control of Antivenoms. The Venom Research Unit was renamed the “Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit” in commemoration of Dr Reid who died in 1983.
Under David Theakston’s leadership and the recruitment of key individuals (Gavin Laing and Paula Sells) the unit consolidated its reputation as a centre of excellence for efficacy testing of new antivenoms, immunodiagnosis, the pathophysiology of venom toxins and instigated enduring collaborative links with David Warrell, Aura Kamiguti, John Harris, Ana Moura-da-Silva, Jose-Maria Gutierrez, Steve Watson and Jay Fox, amongst many others. The recruitment of Paul Rowley in 1993 provided the Herpetarium with essential expertise in the safe handling of, and venom extraction from, highly dangerous snakes – a role that Paul maintains to this day with undiminished commitment and enthusiasm. In the early 1990s, David Theakston ensured that the unit was involved in the early use of genetic techniques for the molecular characterisation and expression of venom toxins with Julian Crampton, and later enthusiastically supported Rob Harrison’s first project (2000) exploring venom toxin DNA immunisation to raise toxin-specific and pathology-neutralising antibody.
Rob Harrison assumed leadership of the Unit in 2005 on David Theakston’s retirement and instigated a research program to develop ‘next generation’ therapies to improve the efficacy, safety and affordability of snakebite treatment: for both the potentially lethal systemic effects, and the disfiguring tissue-destructive effects of snake venom. This Africa-centric research program was/is heavily reliant upon the recruited molecular and bioinformatics skills of Simon Wagstaff. This therapeutic research is increasingly informed by the phlyogenetics/genomics skills that Nick Casewell’s recruitment brings to the unit, and which has resulted in rapid accumulation of very high profile publications. Gareth Whiteley joined the Unit in 2012 and is exploiting his skills in molecular biology, database analysis and biochemistry on a variety of our basic biology projects. In combination, this diverse profile of therapeutic and basic research provides the Unit with a wealth of data and material that has fuelled a succession of PhD projects (Fiona Bolton, Camila Renjifo, Maimonah Al Ghanmi, Rachel Currier, Nick Casewell, Darren Cook, Jennifer Oliver, Sidgi Hasson and Louise Affleck). All the Unit’s staff and students have enthusiastically supported Rob Harrison’s many efforts to raise awareness of the plight of tropical snakebite victims, whether it be through our publications, our new snakebite MSc module , our many public engagement activities or our hosting of over 3,000 visitors to the newly-refurbished herpetarium.
So while the technology and personnel may have changed substantially since Alistair Reid established the unit, our scientific objectives remain remarkably constant: research to improve the treatment of envenoming. Another constant has been the unit’s outreach efforts to improve the availability of antivenom treatment for tropical snakebite victims. Thus, through the EchiTAb Study Group, we were central to the provision of new antivenoms designed specifically to meet the needs of Nigerian snakebite victims – the type of medical benefit that we seek to extend to other rural, remote regions of Africa where snakebite remains a cause and consequence of poverty.