Why velvet seeds protect against snakebites — Experts

Snakes have always been a major pest posing a potential threat to humans from time immemorial. Plant-based repellents like lemongrass, bitter kola seeds, tobacco leaf, scent leaf and chilli pepper seeds have been used for generations as protective measures against snakes within homestead and other environments.

Despite these, ill health and deaths from snake infestation have continued to be a challenge, with heavy reliance on the use of synthetic antisnake venom. This has proved to be costly and in short supply. Some anti-venom medications also have adverse effects like shortness of breath, weak pulse, muscle tenderness, dizziness, fainting, and, in some cases, death due to bleeding.

On the other hand, traditional medicine in many countries employs the extracts of certain plants to provide protection against snakebites. They are cheap, easily available, and stable at room temperature and could neutralize a wide range of venom antigen without side effects.

For instance, Mucuna pruriens, (commonly referred to as velvet bean, agbala or agbaloko in Ibo and werepe in Yoruba) is well known for its anti-snake venom properties.  Eating few of its seeds is claimed to confer protection against snakebite in an individual for at least a year.

Now, researchers, investigating the extracts of Mucuna pruriens seed and Mimosa pudica root on venoms of Naja nigricollis (black-necked spitting cobra) and Bitis arietans (puff adder), said they may also be considered as promising anti-venom agents for people living in a snake-bite prone environment. Anti-venom acts by neutralizing snake venom that has entered the body.

Mimosa pudica is commonly called ‘touch-me-not’, kpakochuku in Igbo, patanmo in Yoruba.

In mice, at a concentration of 50 mg/ml, both plant extracts were found to neutralize the fibrinolysis (preventing blood clots occurring naturally and so causing problems) effect of the Naja nigricollis venom, but 400 mg/ml was required to neutralize the fibrinolysis effect of Bitis arietans.

Also, 50 mg/ml concentration of M. pruriens extract suppressed the haemolysis (breaking down of blood cells) caused by N. nigricollis venom by 70 per cent but at the same concentration, M. pudica extract reduced haemolysis by 49.4 per cent.

The 2020 study, in the journal, Recent Patents on Biotechnology, involved Matthew P. Ameh, Mamman Mohammed, Yusuf P. Ofemile, Magaji G Mohammed  and Ada Gabriel at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in conjunction  with Akefe O. Isaac at the Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Before now, experts had suggested that the protective activity of Mucuna pruriens seeds protects against snakebite through the stimulation of antibodies that cross-react with venom toxins, thus the merit of the idea that its seed consumption can provide long-term protection against snakebite.

The study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry had identified a specific protein, MP-4, as that which reacts with antibodies the body had developed against Echis carinatus (saw-scaled viper) venom, thus strengthening the idea that the protective function is immunological.

Furthermore, mice immunized with MP-4, they found, showed significantly higher rates of survival than unimmunized mice when challenged with Echis carinatus venom.

Moreover, in another study, researchers reported the protective effect of M. pruriens seed extract against cobra (Javan spitting cobra) venom causing permanent damage to the heart.  In the journal, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, they suggested that the extract renders the heart more resistant to the toxic effect of the venom as well as help to boost the body’s immunity against the deadly venom.

Recent studies have found that Mucuna pruriens leaves are more effective than the standard drug, anti-venin, for curing snakebite. The study published in the International Journal of Biochemistry Research & Review investigated the anti-venom activity of Mucuna pruriens leaves extract against cobra (Naja hannah) venom.

However, scientists have recently validated some local plant as herbal medicines for snakebite management. These include English wild custard apple (Annona senegalensis), turmeric (Curcuma longa) and plantain (Musa paradiasica).

Annona senegalensis is commonly called English wild custard apple, tàllàfà màraàyú in Hausa; uburu-ọcha in Ibo; àbo and arere in Yoruba.

Researchers at the University of Maiduguri, Borno State, said in the Journal of Pharmacology and Biomedical Sciences that the root extract of Annona senegalensis possesses potent snake venom-neutralising capacity against the Bitisarietans venom and could be used for therapeutic purposes in case of snakebite.

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