A New Solution For Snakebites
NOEL KING, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHO KILLER")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING HEADS SONG, "THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (NAIVE MELODY)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.