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A New Solution For Snakebites


Earlier this year, the World Health Organization set a goal. It wants to cut the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by snake bites in half. Now, there is a treatment called anti-venom, and it is effective, but a lot of people die before they can get it. Amanda Aronczyk of our Planet Money podcast has the story of a random encounter that could lead to a solution.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: A few years ago, Dr. Matthew Lewin was packing his medical kit to go on an expedition to the Philippines, a place with no fewer than 33 different species of venomous snakes.

MATTHEW LEWIN: Naturally, I was thinking, what would I do if I were in a situation and somebody was bitten and I didn't have anti-venom?

ARONCZYK: Anti-venom is complicated. It's hard to manufacture. It needs to be refrigerated. And it's snake-specific.

LEWIN: Now, if there's 70 different venomous snakes in one place, I can't carry a refrigerator with 70 different anti-venoms.

ARONCZYK: That's not practical, so he does the next best thing. He packs a drug that isn't a cure. Instead, it counters the paralysis that sometimes comes from snakebites. It buys the victim more time. Then Lewin starts to wonder, what if next time there isn't a doctor on the expedition? Who would mix the drug, prepare the needle?

LEWIN: It was actually on the return trip that I had the idea, like, well, what if you could just get rid of the needles? And so the idea, as I was falling asleep on the plane, was, like, well, I wonder if you could just shoot this up your nose.

ARONCZYK: Put it in a nasal spray. Lewin gets home to the Bay Area, and he can't stop thinking about what a surprisingly practical solution this is - no needles, doesn't need to be refrigerated. But for every hour he spends in the lab, he spends 30 hours worrying about how to actually make this a business. Finally, a friend says to him, come on. Come to a party.

LEWIN: Trying to get me out of the house, said he's going to this party at his friend's house.

ARONCZYK: It's at a house owned by some guy named Jerry Harrison. Lewin's like, fine, I'll go. He gets to the party, and there are a few dozen people milling about, drinking spritzers. Music's playing. And Lewin - he's the guy being anti-social in the kitchen.

LEWIN: And there was a little snippet of paper on the side of the refrigerator, and it said, Jerry Harrison makes other people's visions happen.

ARONCZYK: And he's like, huh, that's intriguing.

LEWIN: Some minutes later, Jerry says, does anybody have any crazy ideas that are lying fallow? And I blurted out, nasal spray for snakebites.

JERRY HARRISON: Then Matt started explaining how enormous the problem of snakebite is.

ARONCZYK: Now, Jerry Harrison, at this moment, can you introduce yourself?

HARRISON: Although I do less of it, I'm a musician and a music producer. I was in the band The Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?

ARONCZYK: None of these things seem to have anything to do with snakes.

HARRISON: No. What they did do is that when Matt told me this, the first thing I said is, I'm going to get you an IP lawyer.

ARONCZYK: Since the Talking Heads stopped putting out albums, Harrison got involved in tech startups. He launched a venture capital fund, which explains why at this party he asked, does anybody have any crazy ideas lying fallow?

LEWIN: Jerry said it in a very casual manner, but it was the only thing I heard.

ARONCZYK: Harrison and Lewin started a company together called Ophirex. They've refined Lewin's idea. They've found a better drug that can be taken as a pill instead of a nasal spray. And they expect to start clinical trials next year.

Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News.


Amanda Aronczyk
Amanda Aronczyk (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in October 2019.