The use of horse-derived plasma in large-scale production of immunoglobulins is currently adopted worldwide for the treatment of various infectious diseases, such as tetanus, rabies, botulism, and is the only treatment available for envenoming by several species of snakes, scorpions, and spiders. Ana Lucia Camphora and Manuela Pucca discuss procedures and techniques applied in the production of conventional antivenoms, breaking the customary silence on the millions of horses that have been essential in the historical developments of scientific institutions, such as the Pasteur Institute, in France, and the Butantan Institute, in Brazil.
‘Horses Used for Large-Scale Production of Immunoglobulins: An Inter-Species Approach’
The use of horse-derived plasma in large-scale production of immunoglobulins is currently adopted worldwide for treatment of various infectious diseases, as tetanus, rabies, botulism, and as the only treatment available for envenoming by several species of snakes, scorpions, and spiders. Beginning in 1894, in Europe and across the world, a revolutionary treatment to cure diphtheria, a widespread disease with high mortality rates that mainly affected children, wrote heterologous serotherapy into the history of modern medicine, through the contribution of renown scientists as von Behring, Kitasato, and Roux. In the hyper-immunisation process, horses are inoculated with several doses of a specific antigen (e.g. toxin) that induces an active immunological response in them by creating a level of antibodies high enough to neutralise the antigen lethal effects. When the horse serum presents high antibody levels (i.e. satisfied antibody titles), the animal is bled to extract the antibodies from the plasma.
Seeking for new angles in the history of serotherapy, from an integrative viewpoint of the humanities and the health sciences, we review the routine of the early equines used as living source of antibodies, in France of the late 19th century, and in Brazil of the 20th century. To the extent that today’s hyper-immune equine plasma production system remains so similar to the procedures adopted 120 years ago, early records may be used to disclose aspects of the past use of equines by the pharmaceutical industry and to prospect further considerations on current large-scale production system. Concerning its contemporary constraints, we also shed light on the limits and risks associated to the induced-adverse effects of heterologous immunoglobulins, prospecting trends and expectations regarding novel envenoming therapies.
It is not the use of animals in therapeutics that distinguishes modern medicine from the healing methods of antiquity or traditional practices. In fact, animals have long been associated with some sort of power in benefit of human health. Over the early decades of the 20th century, the Brazilian pharmaceutical industry offered a wide range of biological medicines. In 1920, the pharmaceutical repertory of the Vital Brazil Institute included 29 different types of horse therapeutic sera, and 31 opotherapics, which were pills composed of desiccated spleen, liver, ovary, mammary gland, red blood cells, and thyroid gland. In late 19th century, even in Europe, the medical industry worked closely with slaughterhouses to obtain such raw material. As a significant contribution to the history of animals in modern medicine,6 the challenges and trends resulting from intense and critical use of equines as living producers of antitoxins confront us with ethical concerns, as well as with the risks and limits of pharmaceutical products derived from horses. It is a history that has been largely ignored by those who, in other ways, have so fervently sought a better understanding of the multiple entanglements involving horses and human societies.
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