TUCSON, Ariz. — Snakes are starting to play a big role in COVID-19 research.
According to a study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, scientists from the University of Arizona have discovered an enzyme similar to one found in rattlesnake venom that could be driving COVID-19 deaths.
"We found evidence that there was an enzyme, a snake-like enzyme, in the blood of people who were in extraordinarily high levels," said Dr. Floyd Chilton, the senior author of the study with the University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Scientists have worked on the study for the past year and a half. The snake-like enzyme is found in healthy people at low levels to prevent bacterial infections. In severe cases of COVID-19, it's doing the opposite.
"These high levels of this enzyme are looking at those tissues in the organs and saying, 'You look like a bacteria, let's shred your membranes. Let's put these organs out of their misery,'" Chilton said.
Chilton said what's even more remarkable is where the study could lead researchers in fighting the pandemic.
"Can we come up with specific therapeutics that will not care which variant is coming toward it?" Chilton said. "Can we come up with specific therapies to address this devastating disease?"
Researchers explain that current clinical trials on snake bites are helping in those efforts. They hope to repurpose some of the treatments being tested, which could one day result in a viable option other than vaccines to prevent death in severe patients.
"That allows us to take a precision medicine approach to the disease," Chilton said. "We can go into clinical trials and choose the people who are at risk of this mechanism and then specifically treat those people."
Researchers say the next step is to develop an international multi-center clinical trial. They are working with global organizations to see how they can make that possible.
Bryan Hughes, a rattlesnake expert and the owner of Rattlesnake Solutions, offered his own take on the study.
"For something that is almost as universally loathed as rattlesnakes, it seems fitting and interesting and ironic that the venom that they have in rattlesnakes might be the key in getting out of this situation," Hughes said.
Click here to read more about the University of Arizona study.
This story was originally published by Ashley Paredez on Scripps station KNXV in Phoenix.