Tim Friede: The Man Who’s Immune to Snake Venom
During an interview with National Geographic Dr. Zoltan Takacs, founder of ToxinTech, mentioned he was allergic to both snake venom and its antivenom. “I’m allergic to the snake venom and the snake antivenom,” he said. [video timestamp 18:13]
On the other end of the scale, some people have become immune to snake venom. As snake venom and Covid are currently a hot topic we thought highlighting the case of Tim Friede by summarising Outside’s 2019 article could be a further piece of the puzzle. However, only further investigation and time will determine whether acquiring immunity to venom has any relevance in the overall snake venom / Covid debate.
Since 2000, Friede, a truck mechanic from Wisconsin, has endured some 200 snakebites and 700 injections of lethal snake venom – all part of a masochistic quest to immunise his body and offer his blood to scientists seeking a universal antivenom. For nearly two decades, few took him seriously. Then a gifted young immunologist, Jacob Glanville, stumbled upon Friede on YouTube – and became convinced that he was the key to conquering snakebites forever.
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At the age of 30 Friede, who is now in his early 50s, enrolled in a class on how to milk spiders and scorpions, hoping to land a career extracting venom for medical research. A few arachnid bites later, he got a pet copperhead, and it’s been all snakes ever since. That’s also around the time he first heard about self-immunisation. The ancient practice involves escalating exposure to any harmful substance – toxin, bacteria, virus – that the human body produces antibodies against. So, in 2000, Friede began shooting himself with snake venom in small doses.
He suffered his first snake bite, from an Egyptian cobra, in 2001. Having begun self-immunising the year before – he’d already injected 0.26 milligrams of cobra venom diluted in saline, a dose large enough to ensure he could survive a cobra bite – the bite left him no worse for wear. “That changed everything,” Friede said. “It was the first time I beat death.”
An hour later he was bitten by a Monocled cobra. Friede collapsed, became fully paralysed and had to be revived with six vials of antivenom. He spent the next four days in a coma. Afterwards, he made it a goal to survive two venomous snakebites in a single night, this time without requiring antivenom. To do so, Friede taught himself enough immunology to self-vaccinate more safely.
When he is bitten or injects himself with snake toxins, his B cells, the body’s antibody factories, secrete thousands of different antibodies in an effort to counteract each of the many distinct proteins that make up a particular venom. At first very few succeed. Like random keys inserted into locks, they simply don’t fit. But inevitably, a few do. Its evolution taking place directly in the bloodstream. Every time Friede receives a snakebite, his B cells make only those antibodies that address the now present toxin while at the same time constantly tinkering to improve the designs. The more venom Friede injects, the more effective his antibodies become.
What’s challenging about his approach is that each species’ venom is a combination of 20 to 70 toxic proteins and enzymes that kill or maim in their own special way. To survive bites from multiple species, Friede needs antibodies capable of turning off the deadliest toxins in the venoms injected, be it rattlesnake or cobra. He also needs a legion of them in his bloodstream at all times, although when he first began self-immunising, he wasn’t certain how many. Friede decided that more was better and the process he settled on required near-constant exposure to venom. So, he ordered a lot of snakes.
Explaining why his immunity wasn’t just a dubious party trick but could save millions of lives: “What they did in San Francisco,” he said, “is cloned all my good antibodies to mamba, rattlesnake, everything.” And that, he continued, is what would become the foundation for a universal antivenom.
Friede developed a sort of stuntman-next-door persona by posting videos online. Before long the media discovered him, too. National Geographic filmed Friede for a TV segment in 2002. The History Channel featured him on Stan Lee’s Superhumans, and he appeared on the Science Channel and several YouTube shows. He was also covered in several magazines and became a regular guest on podcasts and radio.
In March 2017, Glanville, who left a principal-scientist position at Pfizer to launch a start-up called Distributed Bio, had just developed a novel method for accelerating the creation of new drugs by extracting patients’ antibodies, the blood proteins vertebrates use to counteract the threat of viruses, bacteria, and toxins. He thought he’d apply the technique to cancer research. So, he took to Google in search of a melanoma survivor. Chasing a thought, he typed in “repeat venom survivor” instead and found Friede.
By this time, Friede had spent 19 years promoting his quest to help researchers create a universal antivenom and Glanville soon stumbled upon a newspaper story that described a YouTube video of Friede’s favourite stunt, the one he says proves his immunity to two of the deadliest snakes in existence: Papua New Guinea taipan and black mamba. Friede’s immune system, it seemed, was able to neutralise dozens of different toxins. Glanville wondered whether he could use his new antibody extraction method on Friede to create a universal antivenom.
Glanville contacted Friede and soon after, they made a handshake agreement. Friede would supply his antibodies, and Glanville his science, and should they bring an antivenom to market, they’d split the profits down the middle.
Around the time Glanville and Friede connected, their cause got a publicity boost. In June 2017, after intensive lobbying by physicians, the World Health Organization categorized snakebites as a neglected tropical disease, an upgraded classification with the heft to shake loose vital funding. Dozens of teams around the world are now trying to improve upon the antivenoms first developed in the late 1890s.
As Glanville soon learned, none of the researchers working on a snakebite cure expected to engineer a truly universal antivenom. Doing so would require an antibody to turn off every toxin in every known snake venom. Yet, as Glanville also discovered, advances in genomic sequencing have revealed that across all 700 species of venomous snakes, the most destructive proteins belong to just 13 different families. “Not all toxins are equally bad. We just need to cure the nastiest ones to save lives,” Glanville says.
Like some of the other teams working on antivenom, Glanville hopes to target the protein-binding sites shared among each of those 13 families. If he can find antibodies to lock onto those vulnerable sites, a so-called broad-spectrum antivenom wouldn’t need to contain several thousand distinct antibodies. An effective number, he says, could be closer to 30.
In April 2018, about a year into the antivenom project, Glanville and Ray Newland, a young scientist appointed to the project, tested Friede’s blood on seven venoms. Within a week, Newland weeded out 282 binding antibodies and had hits on all seven venoms, including ones Friede hadn’t immunised against.
They had 282 antibodies from Friede that worked against whole venoms – and millions more to look through for an even better fit. “Tim’s blood is the best chance the world has at a broadly reactive antivenom,” Newland says.
Read the full story ‘The Human Antivenom Project’ HERE.
Friede continues with his quest to find a universal antivenom. His Twitter profile can be found by following this LINK on which he posts and references two websites: Mithros Bioscience, of which he is co-founder, and Centivax for which he is Director of Herpetology.
- Tim Friede: The man who is immune to snake venom: Amateur scientist inflicts himself with bites in a bold (and very dangerous) attempt to develop vaccines, Daily Mail, 21 January 2016
- Steve Ludwin: The man who became immune to snake venom, The Guardian, 11 February 2018