Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Vintage venom

Among snake handlers, his name is held in high regard. Amateur Australian herpetologist Kevin Budden (ABOVE RIGHT) specialized in collecting venomous snakes from the wild and, at the age of 20, finally found a live taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) in north Queensland and subdued it with his foot. Unable to bag the enraged and deadly snake, he held its grip on it until he reached a local snake-catcher. But by then his hand was cramped and sweaty and even with help bagging the snake, his grip faltered and it bit him on the hand. He was rushed to the hospital, but died the next day. This was 1950 and there was no antivenom for the taipan, which was why Budden wanted so badly to catch one. Even on his deathbed, he insisted that the snake should not be harmed, so it was taken to Melbourne and milked for its venom. Fast-forward 58 years when University of Queensland scientist Bryan Fry was at the University of Melbourne helping to inventory the uncataloged part of the collection of Straun Sutherland, founder of the Australian Venom Research Unit who died in 2002. Opening some of the dusty boxes, he discovered vial upon vial of vintage venom – Including that of the taipan which had killed Budden. It was like opening a time capsule. It gave me goosebumps. These were very personal samples to us. To be working with the milkings from that exact snake…these weren’t just letters on the side of the tube. They had historical and emotional value.” And, Budden would be pleased to know, they still have scientific value. Even though it had been stored at room temperature for decades, the venom is stable and retains its toxicity, so it will continue to be studied.

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