IAVI and Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to Partner in Scientific Consortium for New Snakebite Therapies

News article 16 May 2019

Partners in five countries will discover and develop monoclonal antibodies to treat critical illness from snake venom, which harms nearly 3 million people each year

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) today announced a new global research consortium, the Scientific Research Partnership for Neglected Tropical Snakebite (SRPNTS). Funded with £9 million of UK aid from the UK government through the Department for International Development (DFID), this consortium will discover and develop novel monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapies to significantly improve the efficacy, safety, and affordability of snakebite treatment in India and Africa.

Joining IAVI and LSTM in the consortium are the Nigeria Snakebite Research & Intervention Centre (Bayero University, Kano), the Kenya Snakebite Research & Intervention Centre (Institute of Primate Research, Nairobi), the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore), and Scripps Research (La Jolla). IAVI will coordinate the snakebite research partnership with funding provided by DFID over three years. The consortium will employ IAVI technologies and capabilities used originally for discovering HIV-specific broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) to develop new antivenom therapies.

“IAVI and its partners have over a decade of experience in researching broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV to inform development of biomedical tools for HIV prevention, and we are committed to applying this expertise to help advance treatment and prevention for other diseases,” said IAVI President and CEO Mark Feinberg, M.D., Ph.D. “This partnership enabled by DFID allows us to work with LSTM and other experts to apply our antibody expertise to advance next-generation snakebite therapies for the world’s most vulnerable people.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) in June 2017 added envenoming, or disease caused by injection of snake venom, to its list of priority neglected tropical diseases. Envenoming kills about 100,000 people annually and permanently disfigures or disables an additional 400,000 more. Most snakebite victims are agricultural workers and children in the poorest parts of Africa and India. People in at-risk areas often have difficulty accessing care and cannot afford antivenom treatment; moreover, their local health centers may not stock safe, effective therapies. These barriers to treatment are driven by the challenges that plague antivenom production and use: snakes must be kept and carefully milked for their venom; large animals, usually horses, must be injected with venom and their antibodies harvested in an expensive, time-consuming process; and multi-venom treatments commonly used in Africa and India have weak, unreliable effectiveness against the venom of any single snake species. Many manufacturers in low-income countries are abandoning the antivenom market altogether because of high production costs, further limiting treatment availability.

UK International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said, “In parts of Africa and Asia snakebites are a daily threat, causing life-changing disabilities or in the worst case – death. Because of the huge variety of snake venoms, people often do not get the treatment they need in time, if at all. UK aid has invested in research to identify the complex antibodies needed to develop affordable, accessible, effective treatments. This is a fantastic example of how UK aid can make a real difference in the world.

Over the past 50 years LSTM’s Centre for Snakebite Research & Interventions has been deeply involved in research on the development, testing, and delivery of snake antivenoms. The Centre works with multiple partners on the design of effective, affordable, and culturally achievable interventions to reduce snakebite deaths and disabilities. Professor Robert Harrison, head of the Centre, said, “The SRPNTS consortium aligns the breadth of snakebite research experience, unique resources, and national networks of LSTM and our partners in Nigeria, Kenya, and India with the monoclonal antibody expertise and technical platforms of IAVI. Much of our research over the past two decades has focused on identifying therapies with substantially improved efficacy, safety, and affordability over conventional antivenom treatment. This collaboration with IAVI and other partners is an exciting addition to this research ambition. We are very grateful to the U.K. government because this research funding into snakebite therapy is a much-needed reversal of decades of under-investment in ways to manage the medical and societal burden of this very neglected tropical disease.”

Professor Abdulrazaq G. Habib leads the SRPNTS consortium team at Bayero University. His group has managed the treatment of thousands of snakebite patients over the years. He said, “The DFID grant is a unique opportunity that will usher in new snake antivenom therapies, applying state-of-the-art science in advanced immunology and monoclonal antibody and recombinant protein technology.”

Consortium researchers will isolate antibodies from animals after exposure to snake venom, as well as from multiply envenomed surviving patients. Team members will identify antibodies that can bind and neutralize a variety of venom types from the most medically important snakes of Africa and India. Research partners in SRPNTS will engineer these antibodies for efficient manufacturing. Lead antibody candidates will be tested for efficacy in animals in preclinical studies. Eventually, the most potent mAbs may advance to clinical testing in humans.

Instrumental in this effort to translate discovery science to effective treatment is the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center (NAC) at Scripps Research. This global network of researchers and many others have discovered and characterized more than 200 bNAbs against HIV. Several of these antibodies are being developed for use in potential HIV prevention and treatment products. The NAC’s antibody discovery platform has great promise for other disease areas, and the team hypothesizes that, as with HIV variants, variants within a snake toxin type share common characteristics that are targets for antibody neutralization.

IAVI and the SRPNTS consortium look forward to developing the next generation of snakebite therapy, with the goal of increasing access to life-saving snakebite treatments in places where people need them most.

Research at the NAC that contributed to the development of monoclonal bNAb technology was made possible by the generous support of IAVI’s donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Governments of Denmark (through Danida), Ireland (through Irish Aid), The Netherlands (through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Norway (through Norad), the United Kingdom (through DFID), and through the generous support of the American people from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), among others. USAID administers the U.S. foreign assistance program providing economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 120 countries worldwide. The contents are the responsibility of IAVI and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.