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The Quest for a Universal Antivenom

2012. Immunologist Jacob Glanville left his prestigious job at Pfizer to start his own company, Distributed Bio, while also being Stanford Academy’s first Ph.D in computational immunology. Five years later, in 2017, Glanville has developed a method of catalyzing the creation of new drugs, and that is by “extracting patients’ antibodies, the blood proteins vertebrates use to counteract the threat of viruses, bacteria, and toxins.” Glanville thinks he might be able to use this technique in cancer research someday.

Meanwhile, unknown to Glanville, a man has been working to be immune to snakes since 2000 — Tim Friede. His way of immunizing is giving himself small dosages of snake venom, and letting his snakes bite him. Fate would later bring the two men to each other.

Back to Glanville in March 2017.

...one day, while sitting with a meditative view at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, he took to Google in search of a melanoma survivor. Chasing a thought, he typed in “repeat venom survivor” instead and found Friede.
Friede, who has spent 19 years promoting his quest to help researchers create a universal antivenom, takes up an inordinate amount of space on the internet. Glanville soon stumbled upon a newspaper story that described a YouTube video of Friede’s favorite stunt, the one he says proves his immunity to two of the deadliest snakes in existence. In the video, Friede holds the head of a Papua New Guinea taipan, one of the world’s most potently venomous snakes, against his forearm. Blood is already dripping from fang marks on his right arm, left there moments earlier by a ten-foot-long black mamba. Now the taipan bites. An attack from either snake can stop a person’s heart in a couple of hours. Other symptoms, including drooping eyelids and paralysis of the tongue, develop in seconds. But Friede calmly puts the snake back in its cage and says to the camera, “I love it. I love it. I love it.”
Glanville watched this with the appropriate mix of discomfort and grim fascination. “Jesus f***, this is my guy,” he said. Friede’s immune system, it seemed, was able to neutralize dozens of different toxins. Glanville wondered whether he could use his new antibody-­extraction method on Friede to create a universal antivenom.

Hear more about Glanville and Friede in this amazing narrative at Outside.

(Image Credit: Boris Smokrovic/ Unsplash)


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