When passion becomes work, work becomes a hobby

Authored by Naoual Oukkache, Institut Pasteur of Morocco

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My name is Naoual Oukkache and I specialize in venomous animals and their venoms. There are about 500,000 venomous animal species on earth (snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees, wasps, sea anemones, urchins, marine snails to name a few). Each species has a different venom, aiming at prey capture and defense. While one may think the venom is one molecule “doing the job”, the reality is different: Nature – through millions of years of evolution – has developed venoms that are complex cocktails, sometimes made of hundreds of bioactive molecules each of which is usually very potent and selective for a particular biological target. While the cocktail can kill (luckily, only a small portion of these fascinating animals is really dangerous for humans), each molecule taken individually, can heal. There are already six drugs on the market that were inspired by venom molecules, daily saving lives. This is a fascinating world.

I have always been fascinated by snakes, for a long time. I still remember it as if it was yesterday: I was five years old and on holiday with my family in southern Morocco. While I was playing with my siblings, I saw a kid making holes to hunt snakes. Suddenly, we heard shouts and cries of tears: the kid had been bitten by one of the small snakes he was trying to catch. Fortunately, he was fine and everything ended up well. However, since that day, I was deathly afraid of snakes. I remember asking myself a lot of questions about this little animal, like how the venom induces the pain and probably death. Years later, I had the opportunity to join the prestigious Butantan Institute in São Paulo (Brazil) and have direct contact with snakes for the first time which further strengthened my passion.

Beforehand, I had been lucky enough to study animal biology and dreamed of being a scientific researcher working in a laboratory doing tests to discover medicines to heal and save lives. My dream became a reality when I had the opportunity to do an internship in the venoms unit specialized in scorpion and snake venoms, at the Pasteur Institute of Morocco, which I have been leading since 2001. I started to work on my first project in this laboratory at the age of 23 and since then have begun my professional life and passion.

What attracts me most in my work is to find solutions for this major health problem.

My job is to focus on venom composition, drug development to treat envenomations and clinical trials to test those drugs. My country – Morocco – has many snakes, causing a public health problem, and our laboratory is thus of paramount importance. Morocco has the greatest diversity of snake fauna with a high rate of endemism. It’s a serious problem for the citizens but also for the health professionals due to the unavailability of effective treatment. The snake envenomation entails over 400 cases with thirty deaths annually – and this data is likely an underestimation.

What attracts me most in my work is to find solutions for this major health problem. Envenomations are a big problem in Africa and many other places on earth. In my opinion, it is crucial to find solutions to at least reduce the mortality rate. The only cure is the so called “antivenoms”. Briefly, these are produced by injecting small amounts of venoms into animals (typically horses) who will react and produce neutralizing antibodies. Regularly, blood is taken from the animals and the antibodies are isolated, modified and transformed into a drug that can be injected in humans, which is efficient. As one may guess, sampling the venom from live animals in order to produce antivenoms or for scientific research is a high risk job requiring people who are passionate and courageous, who often fall in love with these mysterious animals.

This passion and my curiosity led me to travel a lot to different countries around the world to study snake breeding, venom studies and antivenom production (France, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Tunisia, Algeria, etc). I trained and collaborated with several institutes including Marseille University of Medicine, Butantan Institute, Cuernavaca Biotechnology Institute, Kuala Lumpur Monash University; as well as the Atheris and Bioclon companies. I am currently participating in preclinical studies and developing innovative antivenoms. I have co-authored more than 40 publications, am a editorial board member of journals, a member of scientific committees and societies, and am also coordinating international grants and supervising Masters and PhD students.

As long as the problem exists, anything you do doesn’t feel like enough.

On 19 September 2020 – International Snakebite Awareness Day – I was praised by the Moroccan media for being nominated as one of the world’s leading female experts in the “Women Champions Of Snakebite” campaign. For me, it is the accomplishment of a lifetime, and the result of my work, a proof that this work is recognized. I was obviously extremely honoured and… very happy. Such a prize, it was truly a dream. Since then, I am even more motivated to develop antivenom against the molecules responsible for mortality, with the aim of improving current treatments for snakebites and scorpion stings. The goal is to improve current treatments and, consequently, to reduce the lethality and the number of disfigurements that occur each year.

This is a multidisciplinary issue, hence a network unifying different areas of expertise in various fields related to herpetology/arthropology, epidemiology, pathophysiology, medicine and community medicine, toxinology, toxicology, antivenom production and legislation is needed. Our studies focus on a translational strategy to study the composition of the most medically relevant venoms using new approaches based on biochemical, immunological, toxicological, pharmacological, taxonomical, clinical and epidemiological data. This detailed knowledge of the toxin composition of venoms will contribute to an in-depth understanding of the pathogenesis of envenomation mechanisms and to the development of innovative antivenoms.

Naoual Oukkache of the Institut Pasteur of Morocco.

As long as the problem exists, anything you do doesn’t feel like enough. The day we achieve a decrease in deaths and amputations due to these venomous animals, every specialist will be proud and feel a sense of relief. However, the main thing for now is to find solutions – that is our primary objective. Let’s synergize our efforts to save lives.