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Stanford snake venom study shows that certain cells may eliminate poison

Death by snakebite is horrible. The immediate pain of the bite is followed by swelling, bruising and weakness, then sweating or chills, with numbness, nausea, blurred vision and possibly convulsions before it's all over. Such misery is produced by a veritable witches' brew of toxins in snake venom.

It's long been thought that the body's own immune system, rather than reducing the symptoms, may make things worse. But now researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that the immune system really does side with the victim, at least in four kinds of venom that were used in their experiments. Their findings will be published in the July 28 issue of Science.

Venom from three species of poisonous snakes and one species of honeybee were studied by a group led by Stephen Galli, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pathology. Using mice, they analyzed how mast cells, a vital part of the immune system in mammals, reacted to the various venoms. The net effect of the mast cell response to the four venoms "is to enhance resistance to the toxicity and reduce mortality induced by the venom," said Galli, the paper's senior author.

This helpful mast cell response runs contrary to the conventional wisdom - that the immune system only added to the woes of snakebite victims. This assumption arose because of the way mast cells respond to certain other stimuli.

Mast cells synthesize a wide range of biological mediators - compounds that can promote inflammation and other tissue changes - that are selectively unleashed from the cells in response to various triggers, often intruders such as parasites or bacteria. In people who have been sensitized (i.e., made allergic) by prior exposure to substances such as peanuts or certain pollens, mast cells also respond to those stimuli. When mast cells overreact to allergens, they contribute to the effects associated with allergy attacks, such as a runny nose, sneezing, itching and red
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Source:Stanford University Medical Center


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