Lab of terror
From the outside, Alagón's Cuernavaca laboratory looks like any other—white block building with the vague scent of lab animals as one enters. But his animals aren't fluffy rabbits and mice. In one room are boxes upon boxes of deadly scorpions (the most dangerous are in open-top crates that inspire a morbid desire to stick one's hand inside). Another room holds huge spiders; a third, shelf after shelf of deadly snakes. Like their teacher, Alagón's students are a cheerful and enthusiastic bunch that catch tarantulas with their bare hands in their spare time.
Alongside private pharmaceutical company, Instituto Bioclon, the team has been mastering a new generation of antivenoms.* First, using a protein-eating enzyme called pepsin, they chemically cut the tail off the 'Y' exactly at the joint, making it a 'V' that cannot interact with the body. Then they process out the impurities and turn the antivenom into a powder that can sit unrefrigerated on the shelf for three years. Alagón says that the updated formula is far safer than the old one and much cheaper than an overnight stay in the hospital.
Furthermore, he says, it costs less to develop. That's why his lab is also working on antivenoms that will treat bites and stings from spiders and snakes found in Africa, where many pharmaceutical companies simply don't see a market.
"[Globally] there are several species of black widow, but they all share the same venom," Alagón says. "What we are trying to do is have antivenoms that are multivalent—that work for the largest number of different species. Otherwise they are not practical."
Instituto Bioclon's multivalent scorpion antivenom, called Anascorp, cleared FDA scrutiny last year and is now available to patients.* A third treatment, for rattlesnake bites, is beginning phase III trials. Their black widow treatment is currently in phase III trials in—among other places—Spano's hospital, where she is also an assistant professor.* During the summer months the hospital sees about one black widow bite per week. Spano says she can't be sure who is getting the drug or the placebo but that in many cases the symptoms just simply dissipate in minutes.
*Editor's note (12/19/12): Three sentences in this story, marked with asterisks, were edited after posting to clarify the roles of the individuals and institutions involved in this antivenom research.