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Scientists at Venomtech milk spiders and scorpions for venom in one of only two labs of its kind in world

09 February 2014
by Lowri Stafford

Shelves upon shelves of containers house some of the world’s most venomous creatures – all at a laboratory in the heart of Canterbury.

From the desert hairy scorpion to the deadly black widow, the poisonous “pets” all call the University of Kent campus home.

But rather than claiming lives, they’re saving them.

King Baboon Tarantula from Africa

King Baboon Tarantula from Africa

They are used by Venomtech Ltd, one of only two companies in the world that extracts and supplies animal venom for scientific research and drug discovery.

Potentially deadly, venom can actually be used to save lives, control blood pressure, relieve pain and even stop the spread of cancer.

The firm was founded in the back of a Ramsgate pet shop by genetics graduate and former Pfizer scientist Steve Trim in February 2010 and moved to Canterbury the following year.

But how do they extract venom from some of the world’s most deadly species?

Steve sums it up in one word: “Carefully!”

A Mexican Beauty Tarantula

A Mexican Beauty Tarantula

He continues: “We give them a light anaesthetic using a gas through a tube into the container, until they are non-responsive.”

A mild electrical current is then applied, which stimulates the release of the venom. Once extracted, its components are separated.

Depending on the species, one extraction produces just a fraction of a millilitre of venom.

But when you consider that just 1ml of black mamba venom could kill 20 men, it is clear it is the potency and not the quantity that matters.

Stephen Trim with boxes of spiders

Stephen Trim with boxes of spiders

Steve explains: “Each venom contains over 100 different components.

"It’s like crude oil – we can separate out the individual components into what they do, from pain-causing to pain-blocking.”

It is then freeze-dried, which preserves it for decades, and sent to large pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers across the globe.

The site in Canterbury holds more than 60 species of tarantula, scorpions, some centipedes and leeches and a pair of false water cobras, all captive-bred from the European pet trade.

But the most important thing for Steve is ensuring his animals are kept humanely.

A Desert Horny Scorpion

A Desert Horny Scorpion

“We treat our animals well because they are our chemists,” he explains.

“We look after them with the utmost care and attention because they are producing our product.

"It’s like a farmer with his cows. We even call extracting snake venom ‘milking’.

He adds: “We’ve won awards for how we look after our spiders. The way the enclosures are built provides a very natural environment for them.

“We’ve got scientific papers backing up our husbandry.”

Venomtech was launched just one month after Steve was made redundant from Pfizer, where he worked for 10 years in drug discovery.

Steve says: “I’ve always been interested in all animals. I see being a biologist as a way of life rather than just a career.

Chris Loaring examines venom extracted from a viper

Chris Loaring examines venom extracted from a viper

“I’ve got a lot of experience with the animals themselves, and I’m fascinated by the science behind what their venom can do. I set up Venomtech because I knew venoms were useful, and there was a global demand for them.”

A life-long creepy-crawly enthusiast, Steve keeps six tarantulas as pets.

But despite coming into contact with the potentially dangerous arachnids on a daily basis, he is yet to be bitten.

He says: “The first thing we developed was safe contact processes. We use long forceps and tools to handle all our dangerous animals, and anaesthesia is done with a gas.

"It’s like a farmer with his cows. We even call extracting snake venom ‘milking’ " - Steve Trim

“We’ve also patented our safe feeding system, which allows us to feed the snakes without dropping the food straight in. We don’t touch the animals unless they’re under anaesthetic.

“Tarantulas aren’t actually that dangerous to humans. A large percentage of them would give you a painful bite, and a few African and Asian ones could cause disease.”

The next step for the business is looking at jellyfish and sea anemone venom.

To find out more about Venomtech, visit www.venomtech.co.uk.

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