Snakebite is a major public health issue in the rural tropics. Antivenom is the only specific treatment currently available. We review the history, mechanism of action and current developments in snake antivenoms. In the late nineteenth century, snake antivenoms were first developed by raising hyperimmune serum in animals, such as horses, against snake venoms. Hyperimmune serum was then purified to produce whole immunoglobulin G (IgG) antivenoms. IgG was then fractionated to produce F(ab) and F(ab′)2 antivenoms to reduce adverse reactions and increase efficacy. Current commercial antivenoms are polyclonal mixtures of antibodies or their fractions raised against all toxin antigens in a venom(s), irrespective of clinical importance. Over the last few decades there have been small incremental improvements in antivenoms, to make them safer and more effective. A number of recent developments in biotechnology and toxinology have contributed to this. Proteomics and transcriptomics have been applied to venom toxin composition (venomics), improving our understanding of medically important toxins. In addition, it has become possible to identify toxins that contain epitopes recognized by antivenom molecules (antivenomics). Integration of the toxinological profile of a venom and its composition to identify medically relevant toxins improved this. Furthermore, camelid, humanized and fully human monoclonal antibodies and their fractions, as well as enzyme inhibitors have been experimentally developed against venom toxins. Translation of such technology into commercial antivenoms requires overcoming the high costs, limited knowledge of venom and antivenom pharmacology, and lack of reliable animal models. Addressing such should be the focus of antivenom research.

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