Vital Brazil - Work


The new São Paulo Institute was built in a section of the city named Butantan, at the time a far-away place, near the Pinheiros river, a swampy, sparsely inhabited area. Under Vital Brazil, it soon became an energetic and exemplary research center in vaccines and sera of all kinds, which were produced locally for the prophylaxis and treatment of tetanus, diphtheria, yellow fever, smallpox and several zoonoses (diseases transmitted to humans by animals), such as the dreaded hydrophobia. The Institute came to be well known by his original nickname, the Butantan Institute, and is still active today.

Vital Brazil was convinced since his early work at Butantan that envenomations (poisoning by accidents with venomous animals, such as snakes, scorpions, spiders and batrachia, then the cause of thousands of deaths in enormous rural Brazil, which teemed with such tropical beasts) could be fought with antisera, i.e., antibodies specifically produced for venoms which were proteins or long-chain peptides. A French immunologist, Albert Calmette (1863–1933) had demonstrated this for the first time in 1892, by developing a monovalent serum to treat bites by the Indian cobra (Naja tripudians).

Vital Brazil thus began a series of experimental investigations, and in 1901 he was able to prove that monovalent sera against the Asiatic species were ineffective against South American snakes, and proceeded to develop his first monovalent sera against the most common envenomations in Brazil, those produced by the Bothrops, Crotalus and Elaps genera (represented respectively by the jararaca snake, the rattlesnake, and the coral snake). He found several clinical and biochemical similarities between bothropic and crotalic envonomations and so he was the first to achieve a polyvalent serum, i.e., simultaneously effective against both species, which represented a triumph over the stark mortality caused by these species in North, Central and South America. In a few decades, this mortality, which was higher than 25% to 20% of bitten people, fell to less than 2%.

Applying the same techniques (which involved gradual immunization of horses and sheep by administering small doses of venoms, and then extracting, purifying and freeze-drying the antibody portion from the blood of injected animals), Vital Brazil and his coworkers were able to discover the first sera against two species of scorpions' (1908) and spiders' (1925) venoms. In the USA, Vital Brazil's name made the headlines when he used his serum to save the life of a worker in the Bronx Zoo in New York who was bitten by a rattlesnake.

Most important of all, the Butantan Institute became a fertile school for breeding a new generation of Brazilian biochemists, physiologists and pathologists, such as José Moura Gonçalves, Carlos Ribeiro Diniz, Gastão Rosenfeld, Wilson Teixeira Beraldo and Maurício Rocha e Silva, who went on to found a growing number of schools, departments and research laboratories in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, giving a great impetus to the development of medical and biological research and teaching in Brazil in the second half of the 20th century.

According to Bernardo Houssay, who wrote a well-cited biography of Vital Brazil in 1966, his contributions went further than herpetology:

"Vital Brazil and his collaborators have studied several actions of the venoms, (such as) coagulant, anticoagulant, hemolytic, agglutinant, cytotoxic, proteolytic, etc. (...) The (animal) poisons contain numerous enzymes which have been isolated and studied with interest in all parts since they explain many of the symptoms and constitute interesting biochemical reagents, Vital Brazil studied also the ophiophagous serpents, such as the mussurana, the ophiophagous mammals, such as the skunk-like Conepatus chilensis and others, the ophiophagous birds and certain spiders. (...) His book, La défense contre l’ophidisme published in French in 1914, attained international repercussion with three editions."

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