Each year, about 100 North Americans who are stung by deadly scorpions require anti-venom from Arizona’s Anti-venom Production Laboratory. Although the Arizona State University facility is one of the only labs of its kind in the world (the other is located in Algeria), it’s ceasing production because the program’s head researcher has retired. Despite this fact, university researchers say if someone is unlucky enough to be stung by the poisonous predators, they can still get help at the ASU lab.
Apparently, before Marilyn Bloom, keeper of ASU’s scorpion anti-venom production program left the facility in April, she produced and stored a large supply of the serum. Luckily the serum can be frozen for a long time and is believed to be enough to last for about five years.
Edward Birge, chairman of ASU’s microbiology department, says the program cannot stay dormant for too long. “Someone’s got to pick it up again,” says Birge. “We’re hoping that a private company will come along and take interest in the serum. If not, we will have to start up production again ourselves.”
The laboratory is the main source for bark scorpion anti-venom, which has a large population in Arizona. Only about 100 of the 5,000 to 6,000 people stung by the creatures – mostly children under three years old and the elderly – are considered serious enough to require the anti-venom. The anti-venom serum, that has been used in Arizona for over 30 years starts fighting the effects of the scorpion’s poison within 30 minutes.
Although about 70 different scorpion species live in the U.S., Arizona is home to one of the only species in North America with a sting potent enough to kill a human. The tiny bark scorpion, which is less than five centimetres long, has been responsible for more deaths in Arizona than poisonous snakebites.
The Arizona research facility has teamed up with local scorpion hunters and a herd of goats to produce the life-saving anti-venom. Every few years the scorpion hunters would venture out and collect thousands of scorpions. Then the creatures were given an electric shock to force the release of their venom. The venom was then injected into the goats that would start to produce antibodies to the venom within their blood. The final result is a pure goat serum that is sterilized, frozen and distributed to medical centers in Arizona. Unfortunately, the venom has not been FDA approved in U.S. states beyond Arizona borders.
“We can’t distribute the anti-venom anywhere else in the U.S., but we can in the state of Arizona or overseas,” says Birge. “It turns out that there are no rules that prevent the anti-venom from being shipped into international territories.”
The drama often featured on television and movie screens has perpetuated the myth that scorpion stings always ensure a painful, instant death. But this is not always true. “Fatalities are very much related to weak immune systems,” says Birge. “A few years back, my daughter got stung and nothing much became of it. A [scorpion] sting is not always a death sentence.”