Made From Snake Venom, These Hydrogels Could Treat Uncontrolled Bleeding

Scientists have found that two proteins repurposed from snake venom can initiate blood clotting in under 60 seconds

An image of an eastern brown snake laying in the sand.
The new gel uses a protein called ecarin from the venom of the saw-scaled viper and the protein textilinin from the eastern brown snake’s venom to seal wounds. (Pictured: An eastern brown snake) Adobe Stock

Imagine a fast-acting, on-demand way to stop bleeding. It exists, thanks to an ingenious mechanism sourced from nature.

Biomaterials researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have developed a gel that can initiate blood clotting in under one minute. It could be available over-the-counter, or used by paramedics and military personnel in combat, to stop bleeding in traumatic injuries while the patient is taken to the hospital, reports Imma Perfetto for Cosmos.

The secret is in the venom of Australia’s eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) native to wide swaths of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The gel contains two snake venom proteins, one from each snake, that act as a wound sealant. Details on the gel were published this month in Advanced Healthcare Materials.

“As many as 40 percent of trauma-related deaths are the result of uncontrolled bleeding, and this figure is much higher when it comes to military personnel with serious bleeding in a combat zone,” says Amanda Kijas, study co-author and bioengineer at Queensland said in a statement. “Nature has created the most elegant and sophisticated mechanisms, and we can repurpose them to save people from dying due to uncontrolled bleeding.”

Traditional trauma supplies like gauze and tissue glues don’t actually stop bleeding or aid in clotting during an emergency. The body excels at stopping bleeding on minor injuries, like cuts and scrapes, through blood coagulation or clotting. However, when a traumatic injury occurs, the body’s complex healing process often cannot meet the sudden overwhelming demand to halt blood coming through a wound. In this process, specialized cells and proteins initiate a transformation of blood and lymph from liquid to a gel to form a blood clot. Red blood cells and platelets then form a plug at the injury site while fibrin protein strands strengthen it, Cosmos reports.

The new bioengineered gel speeds up this process, with the help of the proteins ecarin and textilinin. Ecarin, from the saw-scaled viper’s venom, promotes the coagulation that initiates rapid blood clotting, while textilinin, from the eastern brown snake, prevents the breakdown of those blood clots, making them hardier and longer lasting, according to the study.

Pro-coagulant proteins are deadly when delivered to the body as venom from a snake bite. The venom stops blood from flowing inside veins and arteries, starving organs and tissues. However, the synthetic hydrogel only applies these proteins in small amounts at a local site, without allowing widespread circulation in the body. The gel is also thermo-responsive, so it is in liquid form when stored in a cool place but will solidify at body temperature to seal the wound, a statement explains.

Researchers found that when testing the venom gel on mice, stable clots formed within 60 seconds compared to normal clot function, which takes as much as eight minutes. It even controlled bleeding in the presence of the commonly used blood thinner warfarin, reducing bleed volume (the percentage of the total amount of blood each mouse has that was lost in tests) from 48 percent to 12 percent, per Cosmos.

“We hope this gel will accelerate the wound-healing processes needed for clotting and reducing blood flow, ultimately boosting the body’s capacity to heal large wounds,” Kijas says in a statement.

The gel is currently undergoing pre-clinical testing and is being scaled up for commercial applications. The team hopes to explore further how the gel could be used to treat burns and trauma injuries.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.