We aim to use science for the benefit of human kind, and we aim for our science to have an impact. Our scientific discoveries build upon the work of previous great minds and the development of many molecular techniques, scientific methods, and technological breakthroughs, we have been able to contribute with novel insights within toxinology and antivenom development to the scientific community and society. With the support from generous donors, we have been able to make much of our work publicly available via publication in international peer-reviewed journals.
Peer review publications
Polyvalent snakebite antivenoms derive their therapeutic success from the ability of their antibodies to neutralize venom toxins across multiple snake species. This ability results from a production process involving immunization of large mammals with a broad suite of toxins present in venoms. As a result of immunization with this wide range of toxins, many polyvalent antivenoms have a high degree of cross-reactivity to similar toxins in other snake venoms – a cross-reactivity which cannot easily be deconvoluted. As a proof of concept, we aimed at exploring the opposite scenario by performing a high-throughput evaluation of the extent of cross-reactivity of a polyclonal mixture of antibodies that was raised against only a single snake venom fraction. For this purpose, a venom fraction containing short neurotoxin 1 (SN-1; Uniprot accession number P01416, three-finger toxin (3FTx) family), which is the medically most important toxin from the notorious black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), was employed. Following immunization of a rabbit, a specific polyclonal antibody response was confirmed by ELISA and immunodiffusion. Subsequently, these antibodies were investigated by high-density peptide microarray to reveal linear elements of recognized epitopes across 742 3FTxs and 10 dendrotoxins. This exploratory study demonstrates in a single immunized animal that cross-reactivity between toxins of high similarity may be difficult to obtain when immunizing with a single 3FTx containing venom fraction. Additionally, this study explored the influence of employing different lengths of peptides in high-density peptide microarray experiments for identification of toxin epitopes. Using 8-mer, 12-mer, and 15-mer peptides, a single linear epitope element was identified in SN-1 with high precision.
Mambas (genus Dendroaspis) are among the most feared of the medically important elapid snakes found in sub-Saharan Africa, but many facets of their biology, including the diversity of venom composition, remain relatively understudied. Here, we present a reconstruction of mamba phylogeny, alongside genus-wide venom gland transcriptomic and high-resolution top-down venomic analyses. Whereas the green mambas, D. viridis, D. angusticeps, D. j. jamesoni and D. j. kaimosae, express 3FTx-predominant venoms, black mamba (D. polylepis) venom is dominated by dendrotoxins I and K. The divergent terrestrial ecology of D. polylepis compared to the arboreal niche occupied by all other mambas makes it plausible that this major difference in venom composition is due to dietary variation. The pattern of intrageneric venom variability across Dendroaspis represented a valuable opportunity to investigate, in a genus-wide context, the variant toxicity of the venom, and the degree of paraspecific cross-reactivity between antivenoms and mamba venoms. To this end, the immunological profiles of the five mamba venoms were assessed against a panel of commercial antivenoms generated for the sub-Saharan Africa market. This study provides a genus-wide overview of which available antivenoms may be more efficacious in neutralising human envenomings caused by mambas, irrespective of the species responsible. The information gathered in this study lays the foundations for rationalising the notably different potency and pharmacological profiles of Dendroaspis venoms at locus resolution. This understanding will allow selection and design of toxin immunogens with a view to generating a safer and more efficacious pan-specific antivenom against any mamba envenomation.
In this review, the different approaches that have been employed with the aim of developing novel antivenoms against animal envenomings are presented and discussed. Reported efforts have focused on the use of innovative immunization strategies, small molecule inhibitors against enzymatic toxins, endogenous animal proteins with toxin-neutralizing capabilities, and recombinant monoclonal antibodies. Harnessing either of these approaches, antivenom development may benefit from an in-depth understanding of venom compositions and the medical importance of individual venom toxins. Focus is thus also directed towards the different omics technologies (particularly venomics, antivenomics, and toxicovenomics) that are being used to uncover novel animal toxins, shed light on venom complexity, and provide directions for how to determine the medical relevance of individual toxins within whole venoms. Finally, techniques for assessing antivenom specificity and cross-reactivity are reviewed, with special focus on antivenomics and high-density peptide microarray technology.
Snakebite antivenom is a 120 years old invention based on polyclonal mixtures of antibodies purified from the blood of hyper-immunized animals. Knowledge on antibody recognition sites (epitopes) on snake venom proteins is limited, but may be used to provide molecular level explanations for antivenom cross-reactivity. In turn, this may help guide antivenom development by elucidating immunological biases in existing antivenoms. In this study, we have identified and characterized linear elements of B-cell epitopes from 870 pit viper venom protein sequences by employing a high-throughput methodology based on custom designed high-density peptide microarrays. By combining data on antibody-peptide interactions with multiple sequence alignments of homologous toxin sequences and protein modelling, we have determined linear elements of antibody binding sites for snake venom metalloproteases (SVMPs), phospholipases A2s (PLA2s), and snake venom serine proteases (SVSPs). The studied antivenom antibodies were found to recognize linear elements in each of the three enzymatic toxin families. In contrast to a similar study of elapid (non-enzymatic) neurotoxins, these enzymatic toxins were generally not recognized at the catalytic active site responsible for toxicity, but instead at other sites, of which some are known for allosteric inhibition or for interaction with the tissue target. Antibody recognition was found to be preserved for several minor variations in the protein sequences, although the antibody-toxin interactions could often be eliminated completely by substitution of a single residue. This finding is likely to have large implications for the cross-reactivity of the antivenom and indicate that multiple different antibodies are likely to be needed for targeting an entire group of toxins in these recognized sites.
Snakebite envenoming is a major public health burden in tropical parts of the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, neglect has led to a scarcity of antivenoms threatening the lives and limbs of snakebite victims. Technological advances within antivenom are warranted, but should be evaluated not only on their possible therapeutic impact, but also on their cost-competitiveness. Recombinant antivenoms based on oligoclonal mixtures of human IgG antibodies produced by CHO cell cultivation may be the key to obtaining better snakebite envenoming therapies. Based on industry data, the cost of treatment for a snakebite envenoming with a recombinant antivenom is estimated to be in the range USD 60–250 for the Final Drug Product. One of the effective antivenoms (SAIMR Snake Polyvalent Antivenom from the South African Vaccine Producers) currently on the market has been reported to have a wholesale price of USD 640 per treatment for an average snakebite. Recombinant antivenoms may therefore in the future be a cost-competitive alternative to existing serum-based antivenoms.
Snakebite envenomings represent a neglected public health issue in many parts of the rural tropical world. Animal-derived antivenoms have existed for more than a hundred years and are effective in neutralizing snake venom toxins when timely administered. However, the low immunogenicity of many small but potent snake venom toxins represents a challenge for obtaining a balanced immune response against the medically relevant components of the venom. Here, we employ high-throughput sequencing of the immunoglobulin (Ig) transcriptome of mice immunized with a three-finger toxin and a phospholipase A2 from the venom of the Central American coral snake, Micrurus nigrocinctus. Although exploratory in nature, our indicate results showed that only low frequencies of mRNA encoding IgG isotypes, the most relevant isotype for therapeutic purposes, were present in splenocytes of five mice immunized with 6 doses of the two types of toxins over 90 days. Furthermore, analysis of Ig heavy chain transcripts showed that no particular combination of variable (V) and joining (J) gene segments had been selected in the immunization process, as would be expected after a strong humoral immune response to a single antigen. Combined with the titration of toxin-specific antibodies in the sera of immunized mice, these data support the low immunogenicity of three-finger toxins and phospholipases A2found in M. nigrocinctusvenoms, and highlight the need for future studies analyzing the complexity of antibody responses to toxins at the molecular level.
Antivenoms against bites and stings from snakes, spiders, and scorpions are associated with immunological side effects and high cost of production, since these therapies are still derived from the serum of hyper-immunized production animals. Biotechnological innovations within envenoming therapies are thus warranted, and phage display technology may be a promising avenue for bringing antivenoms into the modern era of biologics. Although phage display technology represents a robust and high-throughput approach for the discovery of antibody-based antitoxins, several pitfalls may present themselves when animal toxins are used as targets for phage display selection. Here, we report selected critical challenges from our own phage display experiments associated with biotinylation of antigens, clone picking, and the presence of amber codons within antibody fragment structures in some phage display libraries. These challenges may be detrimental to the outcome of phage display experiments, and we aim to help other researchers avoiding these pitfalls by presenting their solutions.
A toxicovenomic analysis of the venom of the forest cobra, N. melanoleuca, was performed, revealing the presence of a total of 52 proteins by proteomics analysis. The most abundant proteins belong to the three-finger toxins (3FTx) (57.1wt%), which includes post-synaptically acting α-neurotoxins. Phospholipases A2 (PLA2) were the second most abundant group of proteins (12.9wt%), followed by metalloproteinases (SVMPs) (9.7wt%), cysteine-rich secretory proteins (CRISPs) (7.6wt%), and Kunitz-type serine proteinase inhibitors (3.8wt%). A number of additional protein families comprised each <3wt% of venom proteins. A toxicity screening of the fractions, using the mouse lethality test, identified toxicity in RP-HPLC peaks 3, 4, 5 and 8, all of them containing α-neurotoxins of the 3FTx family, whereas the rest of the fractions did not show toxicity at a dose of 0.53 mg/kg. Three polyspecific antivenoms manufactured in South Africa and India were tested for their immunoreactivity against crude venom and fractions of N. melanoleuca. Overall, antivenoms immunorecognized all fractions in the venom, the South African antivenom showing a higher titer against the neurotoxin-containing fractions. This toxicovenomic study identified the 3FTx group of α-neurotoxins in the venom of N. melanoleuca as the relevant targets to be neutralized.
Snakebite envenoming is a serious condition requiring medical attention and administration of antivenom. Current antivenoms are antibody preparations obtained from the plasma of animals immunised with whole venom(s) and contain antibodies against snake venom toxins, but also against other antigens. In order to better understand the molecular interactions between antivenom antibodies and epitopes on snake venom toxins, a high-throughput immuno-profiling study on all manually curated toxins from Dendroaspis species and selected African Naja species was performed based on custom-made high-density peptide microarrays displaying linear toxin fragments. By detection of binding for three different antivenoms and performing an alanine scan, linear elements of epitopes and the positions important for binding were identified. A strong tendency of antivenom antibodies recognizing and binding to epitopes at the functional sites of toxins was observed. With these results, high-density peptide microarray technology is for the first time introduced in the field of toxinology and molecular details of the evolution of antibody-toxin interactions based on molecular recognition of distinctive toxic motifs are elucidated.
The cost of producing antivenoms from recombinant human antibodies to counter the shortage of animal-derived antisera against snakebites is not as prohibitive as you imply (Nature 537, 26–28; 2016).
We estimate that 500–2,000 kilograms of therapeutically active antibodies would be needed to produce enough antivenom to treat the 1 million or so people bitten annually by snakes in sub-Saharan Africa. On the basis of production data for monoclonal antibodies (N. Hammerschmidt et al. Biotechnol. J. 9, 766–775; 2014) and for oligoclonal antibody mixtures (S. K. Rasmussen et al. Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 526, 139–145; 2012), we calculate that antivenoms created from a mixture of recombinant antibodies could be produced on this scale for US$55–65 per gram.
A typical African snakebite could therefore be treated with a pan-African recombinant-antibody antivenom for $30–150. This compares favourably with the wholesale cost of a typical dose of conventional antiserum ($60–600, which includes packaging and transport, as well as production, costs).
Synergism between venom toxins exists for a range of snake species. Synergism can be derived from both intermolecular interactions and supramolecular interactions between venom components, and can be the result of toxins targeting the same protein, biochemical pathway or physiological process. Few simple systematic tools and methods for determining the presence of synergism exist, but include co-administration of venom components and assessment of Accumulated Toxicity Scores. A better understanding of how to investigate synergism in snake venoms may help unravel strategies for developing novel therapies against snakebite envenoming by elucidating mechanisms for toxicity and interactions between venom components.
Spiders and scorpions are notorious for their fearful dispositions and their ability to inject venom into prey and predators, causing symptoms such as necrosis, paralysis, and excruciating pain. Information on venom composition and the toxins present in these species is growing due to an interest in using bioactive toxins from spiders and scorpions for drug discovery purposes and for solving crystal structures of membrane-embedded receptors. Additionally, the identification and isolation of a myriad of spider and scorpion toxins has allowed research within next generation antivenoms to progress at an increasingly faster pace. In this review, the current knowledge of spider and scorpion venoms is presented, followed by a discussion of all published biotechnological efforts within development of spider and scorpion antitoxins based on small molecules, antibodies and fragments thereof, and next generation immunization strategies. The increasing number of discovery and development efforts within this field may point towards an upcoming transition from serum-based antivenoms towards therapeutic solutions based on modern biotechnology.
With an annual 5 million cases, 150,000 deaths, and about 400,000 amputations, snakebite envenoming is an ever-present threat in many parts of the rural tropical world. Parental administration of animal-derived, serum-based antivenoms remains the mainstay of snakebite envenoming therapy. However, the high level of immunogenicity of such heterologous medicines leads to severe side effects in human recipients. In order to bring antivenoms into the modern era of biopharmaceuticals, it is important to have a thorough understanding of snake venom toxins and to have an optimal antitoxin discovery strategy. In this thesis, a novel approach is presented on how to develop synthetic and recombinant antivenoms based on a range of different molecules, including peptides, nanobodies, antibodies, and antibody fragments. This approach is based on toxicovenomics and phage display selection.
In the work behind this thesis, a systematic method for selecting key toxins for antitoxin discovery was developed (the Toxicity Score). The combination of this approach with the venomics strategy was a central element in the establishment of the new field of toxicovenomics – the study of snake venom proteomes in relation to the pathophysiological effects of their toxins. Four toxicovenomics studies were performed on the venoms of Dendroaspis polylepis (Black mamba), Dendroaspis angusticeps (Eastern green mamba), Naja kaouthia (Monocled cobra), and Aipysurus laevis (Olive sea snake). These studies not only estimated the quantitative venom proteomes of these snakes and identified the medically most relevant toxins responsible for the pathophysiological effects of the venoms, but also revealed mechanistic differences between the venoms. As an example, the venoms from the black mamba, the green mamba, and the olive sea snake showed synergistic behaviors, while the venom from the monocled cobra displayed a dominance of non-synergistically-acting α-neurotoxins. α-neurotoxins played a major role in venom toxicity for all venoms, which cause flaccid paralysis in rodent models.
Several drug discovery programs based on phage display selection were carried out, aiming at finding antitoxins against the medically relevant toxins identified in the toxicovenomic studies. A few hundreds of peptide-displaying phages, dozens of nanobody-displaying phages, and over a thousand human scFv-displaying phages were selected and screened. Among these, dozens of promising peptidic antitoxins with inhibitory effects against elapid neurotoxins were identified. In two-electrode voltage clamp assays using Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog) oocytes, Peptide 33535 was capable of abrogating α-cobratoxin induced inhibition (at a concentration of 40 μM peptide and 100 μM α-cobratoxin) of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, responsible for neuromuscular transmission. This peptide was shown by isothermal titration calorimetry to bind to α-cobratoxin with a Kd of 20 μM. However, despite these positive results, much more research is needed before recombinant or synthetic antivenoms may reach the clinic and benefit victims of snakebite envenoming.
It is the hope that the work presented here will help enable that snakebite victims around the world will gain access to inexpensive and safe recombinant antivenom with high efficacy.
The snake is the symbol of medicine due to its association with Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine, and so with good reasons. More than 725 species of venomous snakes have toxins specifically evolved to exert potent bioactivity in prey or victims, and snakebites constitute a public health hazard of high impact in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and parts of Oceania. Parenteral administration of antivenoms is the mainstay in snakebite envenoming therapy. However, despite well-demonstrated efficacy and safety of many antivenoms worldwide, they are still being produced by traditional animal immunization procedures, and therefore present a number of drawbacks. Technological advances within biopharmaceutical development and medicinal chemistry could pave the way for rational drug design approaches against snake toxins. This could minimize the use of animals and bring forward more effective therapies for snakebite envenomings. In this review, current state-of-the-art in biopharmaceutical antitoxin development is presented together with an overview of available bioinformatics and structural data on snake venom toxins. This growing body of scientific and technological tools could define the basis for introducing a rational drug design approach into the field of snakebite envenoming therapy.
A toxicovenomic study was performed on the venom of the green mamba, Dendroaspis angusticeps. Forty-two different proteins were identified in the venom of D. angusticeps, in addition to the nucleoside adenosine. The most abundant proteins belong to the three-finger toxin (3FTx) (69.2%) and the Kunitz-type proteinase inhibitor (16.3%) families. Several sub-subfamilies of the 3FTxs were identified, such as Orphan Group XI (Toxin F-VIII), acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (fasciculins), and aminergic toxins (muscarinic toxins, synergistic-like toxins, and adrenergic toxins). Remarkably, no α-neurotoxins were identified. Proteins of the Kunitz-type proteinase inhibitor family include dendrotoxins. Toxicological screening revealed a lack of lethal activity in all RP-HPLC fractions, except one, at the doses tested. Thus, the overall toxicity depends on the synergistic action of various types of proteins, such as dendrotoxins, fasciculins, and probably other synergistically-acting toxins. Polyspecific antivenoms manufactured in South Africa and India were effective in the neutralization of venom-induced lethality. These antivenoms also showed a pattern of broad immunorecognition of the different HPLC fractions by ELISA and immunoprecipitated the crude venom by gel immunodiffusion. The synergistic mechanism of toxicity constitutes a challenge for the development of effective recombinant antibodies, as it requires the identification of the most relevant synergistic toxins.
Four specimens of the olive sea snake, Aipysurus laevis, were collected off the coast of Western Australia, and the venom proteome was characterized and quantitatively estimated by RP-HPLC, SDS-PAGE, and MALDI-TOF-TOF analyses. A. laevis venom is remarkably simple and consists of phospholipases A2 (71.2%), three-finger toxins (3FTx; 25.3%), cysteine-rich secretory proteins (CRISP; 2.5%), and traces of a complement control module protein (CCM; 0.2%). Using a Toxicity Score, the most lethal components were determined to be short neurotoxins. Whole venom had an intravenous LD50 of 0.07 mg/kg in mice and showed a high phospholipase A2 activity, but no proteinase activity in vitro. Preclinical assessment of neutralization and ELISA immunoprofiling showed that BioCSL Sea Snake Antivenom was effective in cross-neutralizing A. laevis venom with an ED50 of 821 μg venom per mL antivenom, with a binding preference towards short neurotoxins, due to the high degree of conservation between short neurotoxins from A. laevis and Enhydrina schistosa venom. Our results point towards the possibility of developing recombinant antibodies or synthetic inhibitors against A. laevis venom due to its simplicity.
For more than 100 years, antivenoms have been produced by traditional methods of immunization of large mammals with mixtures of snake venoms (World Health Organization, 2010 and Gutiérrez et al., 2011). With the introduction of proteomic and transcriptomic tools in the molecular analysis of both venoms (venomics) (Calvete, 2014) and antivenoms (antivenomics) (Calvete, 2011 and Calvete et al., 2014), in combination with the toxicological assessment of venoms, a more in-depth understanding of venom composition and antivenom efficacy is being built. As retrieved from current public databases on Elapidae, values for Median Lethal Dose (LD50) are known for 203 toxins, belonging to seven protein sub-families, originating from 40 species (Fig. 1). Furthermore, the number of elapids for which venom-wide proteomics or transcriptomics studies have been reported has now reached 49 out of 355 described species (our unpublished data; http://www.reptile-database.org). Information is now available for a considerable number of species of high medical relevance.
The venom proteome of the monocled cobra, Naja kaouthia, from Thailand, was characterized by RP-HPLC, SDS-PAGE, and MALDI-TOF-TOF analyses, yielding 38 different proteins that were either identified or assigned to families. Estimation of relative protein abundances revealed that venom is dominated by three-finger toxins (77.5%; including 24.3% cytotoxins and 53.2% neurotoxins) and phospholipases A2 (13.5%). It also contains lower proportions of components belonging to nerve growth factor, ohanin/vespryn, cysteine-rich secretory protein, C-type lectin/lectin-like, nucleotidase, phosphodiesterase, metalloproteinase, l-amino acid oxidase, cobra venom factor, and cytidyltransferase protein families. Small amounts of three nucleosides were also evidenced: adenosine, guanosine, and inosine. The most relevant lethal components, categorized by means of a ‘toxicity score’, were α-neurotoxins, followed by cytotoxins/cardiotoxins. IgGs isolated from a person who had repeatedly self-immunized with a variety of snake venoms were immunoprofiled by ELISA against all venom fractions. Stronger responses against larger toxins, but lower against the most critical α-neurotoxins were obtained. As expected, no neutralization potential against N. kaouthia venom was therefore detected. Combined, our results display a high level of venom complexity, unveil the most relevant toxins to be neutralized, and provide prospects of discovering human IgGs with toxin neutralizing abilities through use of phage display screening.
The venom proteome of the black mamba, Dendroaspis polylepis, from Eastern Africa, was, for the first time, characterized. Forty- different proteins and one nucleoside were identified or assigned to protein families. The most abundant proteins were Kunitz-type proteinase inhibitors, which include the unique mamba venom components ‘dendrotoxins’, and α-neurotoxins and other representatives of the three-finger toxin family. In addition, the venom contains lower percentages of proteins from other families, including metalloproteinase, hyaluronidase, prokineticin, nerve growth factor, vascular endothelial growth factor, phospholipase A2, 5′-nucleotidase, and phosphodiesterase. Assessment of acute toxicity revealed that the most lethal components were α-neurotoxins and, to a lower extent, dendrotoxins. This venom also contains a relatively high concentration of adenosine, which might contribute to toxicity by influencing the toxin biodistribution. ELISA immunoprofiling and preclinical assessment of neutralization showed that polyspecific antivenoms manufactured in South Africa and India were effective in the neutralization of D. polylepis venom, albeit showing different potencies. Antivenoms had higher antibody titers against α-neurotoxins than against dendrotoxins, and displayed high titers against less toxic proteins of high molecular mass. Our results reveal the complexity of D. polylepis venom, and provide information for the identification of its most relevant toxins to be neutralized by antivenoms.
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Novo Nordisk Foundation
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