80-Year-Old Vintage Snake Venom Can Still Kill

In 2002, Bryan Fry, the Venom Doctor, was going through the belongings of Straun Sutherland, the founder of the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU), who had recently died. He found a stockpile of snake venom that had been collected by "snake men" who captured snakes for research -as much as 80 years earlier!   

“It was like opening a time capsule,” he says. “It gave me goosebumps. These were very personal samples to us. To be working with the milkings from that exact snake… these weren’t just letters on the side of the tube. They had historical and emotional value.”

They also had something that Fry did not expect—toxicity. Even though some of them were 80 years old, they could still kill.

It’s not like the samples had been carefully prepared. They had been crudely dried, kept in glass tubes with rubber stoppers, and stored at room temperature rather than in a freezer.

Still, Fry’s team found that they contained the same cocktail of proteins and had the same toxic effects as venom that had been recently collected from modern snakes of the same species. Death adder venom from the 1960s could still stop neurons from communicating with muscles. Taipan and tiger snake venom from the 1950s could still clot blood. The only vial that contained ineffective venom was also the only one where the rubber seal had eroded. Otherwise, the toxins were in great shape.

The venom may be old, but it will be used as a valuable research tool. Some of the snakes the venom came from are extinct. And using existing venom supplies is much safer than collecting it from the wild. Read more about the snake men of Australia and the work they did at Not Exactly Rocket Science. 

(Image credit: AllenMcC.)


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Most medicines don't expire, though it's still not a good idea to take expired medicine (because some do). Here's what the US military found out about drug expiration, from The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide:

It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So the expiration date doesn't really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It's true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.
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You're the scientist! But I can explain the common misperception: it comes from doctors who've told us for years not to use pharmaceuticals that are over a year old. (Or was that drug companies?) And we've been told for so long that even if food is safe for longer than a year, it will start to lose its flavor.
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I'm always surprised that people think that simply because they're old, chemicals (and to some extent, room temp-stable protein) lose potency. I've always thought the opposite should be the default way of thinking: chemicals don't "expire," unless stored at the wrong temp.
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