Cobras for cancer

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This one is not exactly legal history, but it is a weird little tidbit I stumbled upon while digging around in the primary sources on forensic venomology (more about this interest here).

I knew that snake venom was historically an ingredient in some traditional South Asian medicines. What I didn’t know was that western allopathic medical researchers were just as interested! Have a look at this Times of India article from Nov.20, 1933:

“COBRA VENOM. Paris Calls for 5,000 Snakes

Even the deadliest of snakes have their uses to the scientist. Experiments carried out in Paris recently have led to the discovery that snake venom is a valuable aid to the cure of cancer.

A French scientist has arrived in Bombay from Paris to secure venom for despatch to Paris to carry on further experiments.

M. Robert Hemardinquer, the scientist in question, has come on behalf of the Pasteur Institute, Paris. He has, it is said, a stupendous task before him. The enormity of the work can be gauged from the fact that each snake is capable of emitting only a very small fraction of a gram of venom at a time.

The French scientist’s objective is to secure one kilogram or just under two pounds of venom, and if this is to be collected within a reasonably short space of time he will need at least 5,000 snakes.

BOMBAY SNAKE FARM

‘I have so far got a collection of about 50 snakes only,’ M. Robert Hemardinquer told a representative of ‘The Times of India’ who saw him on Saturday afternoon.

He has already set up a snake farm in the Haffkine Institute in Bombay, where he carries on the work of collecting the venom.

‘The type of snake we want is the cobra,’ he said. He has sent agents to different parts of the country to secure them for him.

The snakes after they are brought to the laboratory are made to bite a piece of thin canvas stretched on top of a wine glass and the small quantity of venom which the cobra emits through the fangs trickles down into the glass. The quantity of venom thus obtained at a time amounts to from 150 to 200 milligrams.

When a fairly large quantity of venom is collected in a glass it is solidified by a chemical process before being despatched to Paris.

‘I shall be satisfied even if I get about 500 cobras,’ M. Hemardinquer said. ‘The difficulty is that after a cobra has had a bite once it is rendered useless for some time for my purpose as in most cases the fangs break and the snake has to be carefully fed on eggs and milk for a few days before it is useful again.’

FROM SOUTH INDIA

Most of the cobras which the scientist has already obtained are from South India and he is expecting more every day. He expects to remain in India for about four months more and will then go to Africa. His work in India will then be carried on by an assistant.

He told the reporter that use of venom for treatment of cancer was still in an experimental stage.

Great difficulty has been experienced in securing a sufficient quantity of venom for carrying on the experiments.

The venom is injected with other drugs in the part affected by cancer.”

That venom played a role in the history of cancer research is not as surprising as it may seem. There was research going on in Europe and India at this time on whether snake venom could help cure cholera and leprosy. In the mid-20th century, experiments with mustard gas (as in: from the WWI trenches) to treat cancer ushered in the age of chemotherapy. (The Science History Institute’s Distillations podcast has an interesting episode on this history, and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies covers it.) As historians of drugs, medicine, and toxicology remind us, the line between poison and medicine is blurry. Many would argue there is no line at all. For instance, snake venom has been used to develop drugs treating hypertension.

Today, the Haffkine Institute and the Pasteur Institute continue to operate in Mumbai and Paris respectively. The former still has a serpentarium.