LSTM’s Dr Stuart Ainsworth awarded a Future Leaders Fellowship from UKRI

News article 22 Apr 2020
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Dr. Stuart Ainsworth from LSTM’s Centre for Snakebite Research and Interventions (CSRI), has been awarded a prestigious Future Leaders Fellowship from UKRI to develop an innovative and improved therapy for snakebite envenoming. 

Stuart is planning on replacing the use of venom in antivenom manufacture with synthetic, rationally designed immunogens displaying fragments of the most important toxins which cause rapid, often fatal, neurotoxic (paralyzing) pathology. He hopes this approach will make antivenoms more potent and able to effectively treat envenoming from any neurotoxic snake in sub-Saharan Africa.

Snakebite kills 138,000 people and maims around 400,000 more every year. Antivenom is the first-choice treatment and is currently manufactured using expensive, century-old protocols of immunizing horses or sheep with crude venoms, which is a mixture of different toxins and non-pathogenic proteins. However, this manufacturing process does not account for diverse venom toxin immunogenicity or different toxin potencies which often means that a large dose of antivenom are required to achieve cure. These large doses subsequently lead to frequent adverse reactions and unaffordable costs for already impoverished victims. Antivenoms for treating neurotoxic snakebite pathologies are particularly affected by these manufacturing issues due to typically weak immunogenicity and enormous diversity of snake venom neurotoxins.

It is this urgent and compelling need to drastically improve therapies for snakebite that Dr. Ainsworth aims to address with this Fellowship, which is one 90 awarded by UKRI in this round. Future Leaders Fellowships aim to grow the strong supply of talented individuals needed to ensure a vibrant environment for research and innovation in the UK. The scheme is open to researchers and innovators from across businesses, universities, and other organisations, offering an investment of up to £1.5 million over four years to enable the next generation to benefit from outstanding support to develop their careers, and to work on difficult and novel challenges.

Dr. Ainsworth explains: “I am really honoured to be the recipient of this Fellowship, which will enable me to focus on producing improved therapies for victims of this particular snakebite pathology, which is often overlooked and frequently fatal. By focusing on only the components of venom that cause neurotoxic pathology, and exploiting their common conserved features, I hope to produce a focused antivenom which will have increased potency in neutralising neurotoxins. I hope that due to the increased potency of these focused antivenoms, fewer vials will be required for a cure, reducing the cost and risk to the patient.  

Dr. Ainsworth’s Fellowship project begins in August 2020 and will last for approximately four years.