Bengaluru to get serpentarium, anti-venom unit

Bengaluru to get serpentarium, anti-venom unit

New serpentarium and snake research unit is set to come up outside the city that will meld the marvel of modern scientific work with zoo-like public access

A serpentarium and an advanced snake research unit that will blend modern scientific work with zoo-like access to the curious public looking for close encounters with reptiles will come up in Bengaluru.

The 25,500 square feet facility, to be christened the Indian Venom Research Unit (IVRU), will be set up on a 10-acre land at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB) in Electronics City. The centre is expected to advance the development of a new anti-venom to cut the snake bite fatality rate by 50%.

Noted venom expert and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Assistant Professor Kartik Sunagar, who proposed the facility, said the serpentarium will have glass enclosures under natural environments such as wet and humid Western Ghats for about 500 snakes from 23 species.

These will be accessible to the public who will also be able to view scientists working with the creatures behind glass walls. Venomous spiders, centipedes and scorpions will also be held at the facility.

The upcoming IVRU is a three-way collaboration between IISc, Department of Information Technology and Biotechnology (IT&BT) which helped get the Rs 7 crore funding in this year’s state budget, and the IBAB.

“The unit will concentrate on snakebite therapy in India with a particular focus on Karnataka,” Dr Sunagar said.

The need for efficient snake venom is said to be urgent. Data shows that India has the highest number of snakebite cases (10.8 lakh per year) and deaths (6.32 lakh) in the world.

Karnataka alone sees about 7,400 bites on an average annually and about 2,300 deaths, as per data from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Million Deaths Study.

Higher Education Minister Ashwath Narayan, who also holds the IT&BT portfolio, said the new unit “will focus on developing next-generation anti-venom using advanced biotechnological tools like synthetic biology and also support startups to innovate and develop novel therapeutic products from snake venom in a sustainable manner.”

One of the problems with existing anti-venoms is poor efficacy, said herpetologist Gerry Martin.

“Much of the anti-venom being produced in the country comes from Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram, where the Irula Cooperative Society has the predominant license for venom extraction. But because snake subspecies vary across the country, anti-venom is not particularly effective,” he added.

Funding

According to Meena Nagaraj, Director of the IT & BT Department, the project is scheduled to be completed in three years. 

“We are planning to start the project in the first quarter of next year with the tendering process. The construction of the centre will take 6-8 months, after which shipments of reptiles will start to arrive,” Nagaraj said.

She added that the centre has been conceived to be self-sustainable in subsequent years, with the serpentarium being open to the public for a nominal fee.

Dr Sunagar said the “facility will free researchers from travelling to the field to conduct studies” and added the unit will also serve as an incubation centre for startups involved in drug discovery.

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