Face-to-face with spitting cobras

A team at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are experts at collecting snake venom. But spitting cobras are a double threat.

Venom has a complex evolutionary history and the reason some cobras evolved the ability to spit theirs is not entirely clear. Watch the video above to discover the secrets of spitting cobras and their toxic defences.

Within spitting distance

Experts at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) regularly find themselves well within the striking distance of venomous snakes.

But the herpetologists (reptile and amphibian experts) and scientists face an extra challenge when it comes to collecting spitting cobra venom. These snakes are a double threat. Not only can they inject venom through a painful bite, they can also spit their toxins a distance of two or three metres. And they can move pretty quickly when they want to.

Despite the painful and potentially fatal effects that a bite from some species of venomous snake can have, being in a room with these deadly reptiles is entirely intentional.

LSTM aims to understand the basic biology of snake venom, including its complex composition of toxic proteins, with the aim of producing next-generation snakebite therapies. The variations in venom from species to species, and sometimes even within a species, can render current treatments ineffective.

In 2017 envenomation by snakebite was added to the World Health Organisation's list of neglected tropical diseases. Bites from venomous snakes kill more than 100,000 people each year.

A further 200,000 bite victims survive, but with lasting physical disabilities or disfigurements. In Africa alone, the extensive tissue decay caused by some snake bites has resulted in 8,000 amputations being performed each year to prevent the spread of life-threatening gangrene.

But to do their research, the scientists need to collect venom. It is the fundamental resource that all of their work depends upon. LSTM's Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit hosts the UK's largest and most diverse collection of tropical venomous snakes, which are cared for daily by reptile experts.

Venom collection, such as that undertaken at LSTM, is the starting point for the development, manufacture and ultimate distribution of new antivenoms. These treatments are life-saving for thousands of people in countries across the world that live side-by-side with venomous snakes.