Snakes Alive! in Brilliant Butantan

When a casual visitor with school-age children asks what exciting activities are to be found in metropolitan São Paulo, the answer always comes up the same: “Visit the Butantan Snake Farm.” It’s an absolute winner in every sense of the word.

Lurking under quaint stone turrets or sliding across the ground in oval shaped paddocks where they’re kept in a park-like campus close to the university, is a world-leading collection of venomous snakes that offers compelling viewing for young and old alike. For anyone lucky enough to be on time see the “milking” of venom from rattlesnakes (Crotalis Durissus) or their Brazilian viper cousins of the Bothrops family, and subsequent injection of the poison into horses to create antibodies for snakebite serum, it’s a thrilling educational example of “science in action” with courses and activities for all ages and levels of education.

Butantan's slithery customers  delight old and young

Butantan’s slithery customers delight old and young

The Instituto Butantã as it’s properly known, may look a bit run-down, but it’s arguably Brazil’s leading accessible educational resource for scientists of all ages – and there’s a great deal more to it. The Instituto Butantã has been saving lives for generations.

This Brazilian biomedical research center affiliated to the São Paulo State Secretary of Health was founded by the Brazilian physician and biomedical scientist Vital Brazil in 1901, in response to an outbreak of bubonic plague in the port city of Santos. As well as snake venom and insect bites, its researchers have done internationally recognised work on diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria, botulism, tuberculosis and rabies. It even runs a healthcare-focused MBA course.

Butantan: one of Brazil's most respected scientific institutions since 1904

Butantan: one of Brazil’s most respected scientific institutions since 1904. Photos SP State government

It was visited by US president Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 – and by countless dignitaries, scientists, tourists and children ever since. A fire in 2010 destroyed the collection facility, which maintained one of the largest collections of venomous animals in the world, comprising around 80,000 snake specimens, and an estimated 450,000 spiders and scorpions. But there are ambitious plans to refurbish the whole science park.

Time was when across Brazil’s rural areas, the refrigerator of every large estate kitchen had its vial of Butantã snakebite antidote. You couldn’t buy it – but you could get the precious serum through an exchange. Anyone brave enough to capture and deliver a healthy live cobra to the farm, received the serum free in return.

With the urbanisation of Brazil those days are now gone, and Butantã has morphed from being one of the world’s leading research centres for venomous tropical snakes, spiders and insects, into a major manufacturer of vaccines and serum. It also does pioneering work in some of Brazil’s leading research into antimalarial vaccines, and the production of an anti-AIDS vaccine now in research on mammals.

Today it’s the main producer of immunobiological products in Brazil. As such, it is responsible for a large percentage of the domestic production of hyperimmune sera and for a 90% of the vaccines used in Brazil that make up the vaccines used by the Ministry of Health’s National Immunization Programme, PNI.

Jararaca pit viper

Jararaca pit viper

The Institute is the largest producer in Latin America (and one of the largest in the world) of immunobiologicals and biopharmaceuticals. In 2001 it produced around 110 million doses of vaccines and 300 thousand vials of hyperimmune sera. By 2014 that total had risen to 400,000 vials ampoules containing 13 different types of serum.

Now, Butantan has just completed a significant refurbishment and expansion of its serum-producing laboratories. This came in response to a demand by Brazil’s main   health and pharmaceutical regulatory agency ANVISA (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária) , to implement new standards for drug production in Brazil.

Jorge Kalil, Instituto Butantã’s director, said that the need to upgrade was an opportunity to increase productive capacity and to make important changes to the serum production process. After the Br$21 million (US$ 6 million) upgrade, the Institute’s production capacity will be raised by 75% and it’s expected to produce 700,000 vials a year. Not only will the Institute be able to supply all Brazil’s domestic needs: the extra capacity will allow for exports.

Already, the Instite supplies Mozambique, and new contracts are being signed with Myanmar (Burma) – a country with the world’s highest concentration of venomous snakes, according to Kalil.

By 2016, the enhanced laboratories covering 700 M2 will not only produce serum in conformity with ANVISA standard, but with international standards too. The new facilities include space for other types of venomous animals besides snakes, such as spiders, scorpions and even some lizards.

At a farm close to the city   more than 800 horses are regularly injected with small doses of snake venom, allowing them to generate antibodies which are removed from their bloodstream.

Venomous snake collection helps generate 700,000 vials of  serum antidotes each year

Venomous snake collection helps generate 700,000 vials of serum antidotes each year

The new labs will increase the Butantã Institute’s research capacities too. Currently its hosts INCTTox (Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia em Toxinas) , and CeTICS (Centro de Toxinas, Imuno-resposta e Sinalização Celular) which are research units supported by the federal research funding agency CNPq, and by FAPESP, the São Paulo Research Foundation. Ongoing projects include antidotes for those unlucky enough to receive multiple stings from a swarm of bees. Kalil estimates the market for bee sting serum to be worth US$200 million a year, and says the Institute will have a market-ready version by 2020.

The Institute is also working on a new polyvalent tetanus vaccine that will be generated, not through antibodies from other mammals such as horses, but through test-tube cultures creating anti-bodies directly in the lab. Once again FAPESP is funding this project.

Portuguese readers can review a detailed article by Brazilian journalist Elton Allison by clicking here.

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