Serpents and the pharmaceutical industry

As the Butantan Institute demonstrated, poisons can originate medicines

How can one understand how serpents, one of the animal species most feared by man since ancient times, can exercise such an irresistible attraction over us? This attraction is one of the main reasons that have made the Butantan an institute recognized throughout the world.

Fascination with snakes goes back thousands of years. For the Sumerians, some 4000 years ago, mortality and cure were attributes of the God Ningishzida, represented by twin snakes and until today these are the emblem of medicine. The Romans inherited from the Etruscans the cult of serpents before ceding the influence to Greek medicine. Afterwards, among the Hebrews, they symbolized evil. At the Butantan Institute they are treated with respect and admiration, since their venom can help man to understand and to cure illnesses.

How can the mortal power of snakes be converted into a medicine? In ancient times many charlatans, sorcerers, doctors and scientists looked for in snake’s venom the remedy for the illness since they believed that “with evil one cures evil” (equivalent to the Latin medical maxim “similia similibus curantur”). It was through looking at the snake poison for the remedy for a cure for an illness caused by it, that the medical doctor Vital Brazil, the founder of the Butantan Institute, joined the ranks of dozens of famous personalities in the history of medicine. His admiration for these animals helped him to develop in the country the anti-snake serums and also awaken in our scientists the interest for toxins. Poisons are also a source of greed because of the potential for creating wealth that they have, and for serving as a model for new medicines and pesticides.

It is well known that we Brazilians don’t know how to value our natural resources. Examples also exist in the use of medicines developed from poisons. Few people know that it was through research carried out in Brazilian laboratories, with the poison of the jararaca snake, that the multinational pharmaceutical industry developed the drug captopril, the medicine most widely used for the treatment of arterial hypertension. The research that led to the development of this medicine by multinational pharmaceutical companies generates an annual income of close to US$ 10 billion per year. This quantity is three to four times greater than our current President wishes to invest in combating poverty in Brazil, or one hundred times greater than what we are spending on the manufacturing of vaccines for all the country.

What obstacles prevent us from using this immense potential of natural and human resources which we have for the creation of products and to avoid that similar facts repeat themselves? Here we cite what is one of the most visible characteristics of under development brought on by the gap that separates the research laboratory (publicly funded) from private enterprise. In the pharmaceutical area we have, on the one hand qualified human resources coming from the scientific world, and on the other, a Brazilian pharmaceutical industry developed in many aspects, but with very little capacity to make use of biomedical research.

Important steps for the necessary approximation between the worlds of the laboratory and private initiative have been taken by FAPESP, creating initiatives that will help to by-pass the government’s difficulty to confront the jammed up gears of many public institutions. However, it is fundamental that such institutions associate themselves with private enterprise so as to gain competitiveness and efficiency, unburdening the State and benefiting the society.

Antonio Carlos M. de Camargo is a medical doctor and professor at USP and the director of the Applied Toxicology Center at the Butantan Institute

** The original article was published in full in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo on the 24/08/2000