Snakes, Scorpions and Komodo Dragons: Our Q&A with the Venom Doc

Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry holds a PhD in taipan toxins and is a world-renowned expert on venomous animals, after years of global research in some of the most extreme environments on Earth, pursuing creatures that could kill him in minutes. He’s come up against venomous water shrews, has been bitten by 26 poisonous snakes, and almost died in the Amazon from a scorpion sting. In 2009 he made the groundbreaking discovery that Komodo dragons are actually venomous, shocking the scientific community and making the enormous carnivorous lizards all the more menacing. In our Q&A reveals insights into his new memoir Venom Doc and why he became obsessed with dangerous animals and their deadly chemical weapons at an early age.

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Can you describe the most painful bite or sting you’ve ever experienced?

The most painful envenomation I experienced was the time I was stung by a very large black stingray. The barb went straight into the meaty part of my thigh, penetrating until it hit bone. When the stingray yanked the barb out, it was competely defleshed of all the venom-delivering tissue, meaning a full shot of toxins had been deposited into the jagged wound. The pain was instantaneous and blinding, and the bleeding was profuse. I knew then what hell on earth Steve Irwin’s last minutes must have been. My only conscious thought was that ‘stingray’ was far too benign-sounding a name. Really, it should be called the ‘GivemeagunsoIcankillmyself-ray’!

How do you go about avoiding potentially fatal bites and stings from the animals you’re working with?

I work with inherently dangerous animals in uncontrolled situations. The key is anticipation of potential outcomes and developing contingency plans. While of course I do not deliberately put myself in hazard’s way, things do happen. It is therefore of paramount importance to have proper risk assessments, first aid plans and extraction procedures. Otherwise, this can lead to death, as has happened to friends of mine who were killed by venomous snakes.

What fascinates you about venom?

I was four years old when I announced I was going to study venomous snakes for a living. My interest in all things toxic was stimulated by the fact that my first memory is being in the hospital in absolute agony as a two year old with spinal meningitis.

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I remember my head was restrained and all my limbs were strapped to a bed, with intravenous lines surgically implanted into my temples and on the insides of my ankles. I was being pumped full with a wide variety of chemical combinations, all in a desperate race against time to cure me of the spinal meningitis that was wreaking havoc on my central nervous system. At only sixteen months old, I was one very sick little baby. My spine was cold liquid fire and my newfound existence a tortured hell. The reason I was restrained was that I kept grabbing onto the tubes like a hairless little monkey and pulling them out, even the ones inserted into my temples. Eventually the electrical storm passed and the clean up began. This was my first flirtation with death. Well, a bit more than just flirting. Bodily fluids were definitely exchanged.

I had started walking just before I fell ill but I left the hospital so weak that I couldn’t stand. I was back to ground zero, learning to walk all over again. My paternal grandmother Gene bought me a big toy truck so I could brace myself standing against it while I took the uncertain steps to rebuild my wasted leg muscles. During the follow-up treatment at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, the team of neurology specialists had an intricate set of exams planned to test the recovery of my neurological function. However these were immediately suspended after I spontaneously started doing multiple somersaults across the floor. My cavorting was all the evidence they needed to determine my successful recovery.

It turned out that in this first critical event, I had escaped without any permanent damage except for the hearing in my right ear being almost entirely wiped out accompanied by pretty terrible balance. Other than perfect hearing in one very narrow range, it was like all the hearing on either side had just been deleted, leaving the ear useless for not much more other than hanging sunglasses off. I now have a daily reminder of my mortality.

You discovered that Komodo dragons, despite popular belief, don’t kill with bacteria and are actually venomous. How did you make this breakthrough?

This breakthrough came because the whole idea of Komodo dragons using bacteria just never made any sense to me. There is a simple philosophy in science that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Bacteria being used as a weapon is as extraordinary of a claim as could be made. However, the evidence was sorely lacking.

Komodos have the large serrated teeth as their primary weapon, using a grip-and-rip strategy to inflict deep parallel wounds. This mechanical damage can result in a very rapid death from blood loss (e.g. slicing the femoral artery). The role of the venom is to exaggerate the blood loss and the shock-inducing mechanical damage caused by the bite. Enough loss of blood leads to a drop in blood pressure sufficient to induce shock or unconsciousness.  Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 12.33.12 pm

Komodos actually evolved in Australia. Nowadays, they have three mammalian potential prey choices, all of which are feral. The introduced pigs and deer are within the natural prey size (40-50 kg) while the buffalo are dramatically larger than would have been a reasonable size for Komodos to kill and also occupy an ecology unlike anything in Australia.

These collective differences are starkly reflected in attack success. Attacks on pigs and deer are extremely successful.  About three quarters bleed out within the first 30 minutes and another 15% succumb within three or four hours.  Repeated attacks by the same or other Komodos is not uncommon. In dramatic contrast is the outcome of attacks on water buffalo, which invariably get away with deep wounds to the legs. Once escaped, they go and stand in faeces-filled watering holes – the perfect scenario for dramatic infections. The infections don’t come from the dragon’s mouth, but from an environmental source.  Deep wounds in faeces laden water is a perfect scenario for the flourishing of bacteria, particularly the nasty anaerobic types.  Thus, the sampling of komodo mouths that purported to show them harbouring pathogenic bacteria neglected to sample the real source of any infection to the water buffalo: the watering hole the dragons recently drank from.  It has been a man-made, artificial scenario all along that has nothing to do with the evolution of the predatory ecology of Komodos.

Having gotten septicaemia in Flores from deep lacerations resulting from a boating mishap in Flores Harbour (the water there is pretty disgusting) I can attest to how quickly such environmental sources can produce life-threatening infections.  As a consequence of the Flores doctor doing a shockingly inept job of cleaning up the wounds before stitching them up, I ended up delirious and nearly unconscious in the Bali International SOS clinic waiting 36 hours for emergency IV antibiotics.

There is nothing special about Komodos.  They are simply the largest extant species of a clade that had two extinct larger species, none of which have ever used bacteria as a weapon.

Myths like this about the natural world are rife. Why is important to dispel scientific myths?
It is important to dispel such myths because they can obscure something important and potentially useful, such as the potential for Komodo dragon venom being a source of novel therapeutics. Only by recognising the full diversity of venomous life can we exploit their economic potential.

Your research has taken you all around the world. What’s the most extreme place you’ve visited, and what kinds of wildlife did you find there? 

The most extreme place I’ve ever visited was Pakistan. We were collecting black cobras deep in the Sindh desert. Three days after we left our safe house was blown up.

How can venom be beneficial to us? 

Venoms and toxins are a rich source of unexplored compounds that could be used in drug discovery and development. Reptile venoms have been used to develop drugs such as Captopril, which is used to treat high blood pressure, and Byetta, which is used to treat diabetes and has off-label effectiveness as an anti-obesity drug.

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Captopril was derived from the venom of the lancehead viper from Brazil. This drug and its derivatives have an annual market of $10 billion. It reinforces the value of conservation, for if the habitats are wiped out, the animals will be extinct before we can study them. When people ask me what the best argument is to convince people of the value of conservation, I say that their weakest argument is to talk about how magnificent and wonderful the animals are. The only people who will appreciate that will be the ones who already think that way – it’s very much a case of preaching to the choir. Rather, they should stress the value of conservation through commercialisation, pointing out that destroying a stand of forest is no different than nuking mineral deposits. There is no way to predict where the next wonder drug will come from, so we need to conserve all of nature.

Why did you decide to write this memoir? What do you hope people will get out of reading it?

I wrote it to get people interested in science and venomous animals in particular. However, it goes far beyond that, especially the parts dealing with the long-term damage to my hormone system after months on intravenous opioids. With long acting opioids there is also the very high likelihood of permanent damage to hormone production and synthesis, especially testosterone and nerve growth hormone. As I discuss in Venom Doc, I’ve been there, done that. This is a silent epidemic amongst males. I go into detail about a wide array of other medications, recreational drugs or even pollutants that can have such a dire impact upon male fertility and quality of life.

Venom Doc by Bryan Grieg Fry is published by Hachette Australia, rip $32.99. 

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