Purveyors of snake oil and its mythical powers may not have had it all wrong, if preliminary findings with the Florida cottonmouth, bloodstains and a washing machine stay on target.
An enzyme extracted from the viper's venom appears to help launder out notoriously stubborn blood spots on clothing, according to a report presented here today at the 227th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
"We have partially isolated a component of the Florida cottonmouth snake venom that's capable of dissolving a blood clot and we've used this component to determine if it will help remove bloodstains from clothes," says Devin Iimoto, Ph.D., a biochemist at Whittier College who studies snake-venom enzymes for clinical applications. Two of Iimoto's undergraduate students at the California liberal arts university described the results of the experiments with bloodstains in clothes at the Anaheim meeting.
The researchers applied the enzyme to spots of blood that had air-dried for one hour on swatches of white denim. The next morning they laundered the samples along with untreated bloodstained control swatches in a household washing machine with common laundry detergent and warm water. After drying the swatches, they saw the stains were noticeably fainter on those treated with snake venom than on those that simply went through the wash cycle without prior treatment.
The key seems to be a fibrinolytic enzyme — a component of venom that does not damage a victim's blood vessels and nerves directly, but likely facilitates the spread of such toxins by hampering the body's attempts to seal off the area of the wound. As the name suggests, the enzyme works by cleaving the blood protein fibrin, whose tough fibrous strands normally reinforce platelet plugs to form a patch, or scab, over breaches in the walls of blood vessels.
The idea to investigate a possible laundry application for the cottonmouth enzyme was sparked by a similar British study that used a different enzyme involved in blood clotting. That study was unsuccessful in removing bloodstains, but Iimoto felt that the venom enzyme might fare better if left in contact with the stain for a longer period and, he added, it would be an interesting research project for his students.
Iimoto and his students, Ryan Guillory and Mandar Khanal, extracted the enzyme from commercially available venom milked from the Florida cottonmouth, or water moccasin. In their tests with bloodstains, they varied such factors as the concentration of enzyme, the time it was allowed to work on the blood — Iimoto's own, drawn by the school nurse — and whether a series of several small applications of enzyme solution worked better than one larger one.
"Now we're trying to quantify our data, to make sure our numbers match what we're seeing," says Guillory, a senior chemistry major who hopes to work in forensics.
With luck and further encouraging results, the group says, their snake venom enzyme may someday join other enzymes already in detergents to help scrub clothes clean. Meanwhile, they plan to test the cottonmouth venom with an array of variables. "For example," says Guillory, "we've heard both that hot water and cold water is best for removing bloodstains." The researchers hope testing will determine if water temperature actually makes a difference in the ability of the enzyme to remove bloodstains.
Funding for this study came from a grant provided by Research Corporation and from the Whittier College Faculty Research Fund.