At their sanitized table, men in white coats adjust their surgical masks and protective eyewear in preparation for the next operation.
One of them holds a forceps. Another, a thin glass tube. A third man powers up an electrode.
Holding their breaths, they glance down at their subject: eight legs as thin as air rotate about a segmented hard body, colored like a desert. One end is a hook-shaped tail, another is a pair of sharp pincers.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Writhing, shifting, scurrying – the scorpion taps its finger-sized body insistently against the walls of the plastic container that houses it, breaking the silence of the room with faint but sinister knocking.
Using his forceps, the first man lifts the scorpion from the container and subdues it in a small metallic box.
Electricity is then shot at the tail.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Transparent venom drops from the tip of the tail, collected carefully in a thin glass tube.
At the doorway, Ziad Tarif watches his team at work. Despite his relaxed face, two words echo so loudly in his mind he may as well have been screaming them: be careful.
Such is the routine specialists at the Lebanese Venom Company (LVC) follow on a regular working day. As the first and only scorpion farm in the country, LVC captures indigenous scorpions, extracts their venom, then sells it to local and worldwide biological research centers.
CEO of the company Ziad Tarif claims this venom is sold for two purposes: the production of antidotes and the study of its role in the treatment of chronic human illnesses.
“Our work shows us how ironic scorpions can be,” he says. “Yes, their venom can kill you, but that same venom may have something in it that can save you.”
LVC was proposed when 15 scorpion enthusiasts from the small town of Qaraoun, West Bekaa, were brought together by a shared concern over sting cases in the region. Determined to be of service, team members received certified training on the extraction and treatment of scorpion venom in an expedition to Egypt in late 2019.
Equipped with knowledge and skills, Tarif and his colleagues founded LVC in January 2020 with the mission to become a leading company in the development of antivenom and venom-derived medical products.
But contributing to the greater good through LVC doesn’t happen easily.
Laughing tiredly, Tarif adds, “we didn’t know what exhausting and risky adventure we were up to when we first started.”
Late night spring adventures
Every year, the adventure begins with hunting during the dark nights of late spring.
In heavy boots and concealing clothes, LVC hunters cross the rocky trails of the Bekaa mountains.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Soil and stone are crushed under their steps. They crouch down and illuminate the ground with an ultraviolet flashlight.
Under the light, scorpions glow in a vibrant blue, as if someone has dropped and scattered a few sapphires.
With forceps, the hunters grab the scorpions by the tail and drop them in containers.
“Scorpions need to be caught during their season – from late spring until the end of summer,” says Yehia Zacaria, manager of scorpion production and quality control at LVC.
He explains that scorpions hibernate underground in winter and come out when temperatures rise and humidity decreases.
“It has to be at night, in shaded areas where there’s no moonlight,” he adds. “Scorpions are nocturnal animals – they like the dark.”
But the dark is more than a mere preference. It’s a survival instinct: light causes the scorpion’s body water to evaporate, killing it of dehydration.
To this day LVC has hunted, in numbers as high as 80,000, five of 13 Lebanese species between Baalbeck and Yohmor in Bekaa.
“It’s our mission now to find the rest of them in other regions. Venom differs from one species to another, and when venom differs, so do its antivenom and medical possibilities,” says Zacaria.
Once hunted, the scorpions are quarantined for a month to verify their healthiness for experimentation.
Those that are approved are moved to maintenance rooms. Inside, thousands of containers are placed on metal racks aligned like bookshelves, accommodating scorpions by species. But their accommodation is not easy work.
In addition to regularly and very carefully cleaning their containers and feeding them worms, the room temperature needs to be regulated to no lower than 25 degrees – otherwise the scorpions might think it’s winter and start hibernating.
“There’s also the haunting fear that something might go wrong,” says Zacaria. “There’s always danger because scorpions can be unpredictable when irritated.”
He recalls how two of his colleagues were once stung while working. Luckily, antidotes were available to assist them.
“But with time, you tend to discover how to handle these creatures and, with LVC’s precautions, overcome your fear.”
Each scorpion at LVC has its venom extracted monthly, six times a year. The process, called “milking,” takes place by electrically stimulating the tail – though harmless, 10 to 12 volts give the scorpion the impression it is under attack, promoting the release of venom.
Once the drops are safely collected, the sample is refrigerated for preservation.
At a buyer’s request, it is taken to be lyophilized. Also called “freeze-drying,” lyophilization purifies frozen venom from water and waste, converting it to toxin-only powder.
“This allows the sample to become approximately 99.9 percent pure,” says Tarif as he gestures proudly at the freeze-drying machine: a large box with a touch pad and protruding tube to which the frozen venom is fed.
“Biologists require this percentage because anything less may not be suitable for research. Toxins need to be studied on their own, without interference from other substances venom contains.”
The obtained powder is then weighed on a precise scale and sold in milligrams – an amount often enough for research purposes.
With extraction finalized, the scorpion and its powdered venom part ways.
The many uses of scorpion venom
Scorpions, after the sixth milking, are released back to the wild. Tarif emphasizes that they are best kept in their natural habitat, and LVC makes sure each of its subjects is granted this right.
As for the venom, where it goes determines what it is used for.
“Our clients abroad, like VINS Pharmaceuticals in India, study the medical potential of our products and will start manufacturing anti-venoms in the coming years,” says Tarif.
But in Lebanon, he claims the clients – laboratories in local universities such as the Lebanese University and the University of Balamand – are limited to basic research on the nature and composition of the venom. LVC and national pharmaceutical labs alike are not yet licensed by the government to produce much needed antidotes.
Those available in the company, and the country more generally, are imported from Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) – one of the only two antivenom-producing facilities in the Middle East.
He explains that it does more harm than good to use antivenom produced from foreign scorpions to heal a sting from a native species. But because Lebanese and Syrian species are quite similar, Syrian antidotes tend to work to satisfaction.
“Still, two antivenom companies in the entirety of the Middle East are not enough, and it’s a shame that we have to depend on neighboring industries when we are more than ready to provide our services locally.”
In August 2021, the Ministry of Health issued guidelines to follow in case of a scorpion sting. The report, justifying the lack of antivenom production in Lebanon, declared native scorpions as non-threatening to human life.
Technical consultant at LVC Dr. Adolfo Borges addresses the gravity of antidote shortage in the region. He claims the Lebanese government, like other governments in the Middle East, severely underestimates the danger of its indigenous species.
As a biologist based in Paraguay, Borges has been involved in South American scorpion research for 25 years. His growing interest in the unexplored Middle Eastern – particularly Lebanese – scorpions has allowed him to discover the local availability of two fatal species called Leiurus abdullahbayrami and Androctonus crassicauda in Baalbeck.
This lack of awareness, says Borges, is also why scorpion research is so underfunded in Lebanon and the region.
“The state offers LVC no support – not financial, not technical. It’s a self-funded project. This underappreciation of scorpions has caused research to be very limited here, as I have seen in the universities with which we collaborate.”
With the Leiurus and Androctonus scorpions roaming the country, Borges urges the government to support research and release the permits for antivenom production.
He explains that scorpions such as these are, in the scientific community, referred to as “medically significant” because their toxins can easily act on the human body.
Are humans at risk?
“For some evolutionary reason, some scorpion species developed to target insects and small vertebrates. These don’t pose a major risk to humans. Others, however, evolved to target us – the large vertebrates.”
And the most vulnerable, says Borges, are the region’s 1.5 billion children.
“Medically significant scorpions don’t usually kill a healthy adult because envenomation is a mass-to-volume process,” he explains. “Children have smaller bodies and therefore can die within a couple of hours – a miracle if it lasts days. But a healthy adult can withstand longer and survive until the antidote is given.”
What concerns the medical community the most is the rapidity and complexity in which venom acts on the body, says Borges. In a matter of minutes, the toxins can wreak complete havoc in the nervous system.
“And since the nervous system controls pretty much everything else, a person going through the process of envenomation can experience heart failure, breathing difficulties, gastrointestinal complications and abdominal pain, convulsions and seizures. Now imagine subjecting children to this danger.”
He recalls the 2021 case of a nine-year-old girl in Baalbeck who, due to the unavailability of an antidote in the country, passed away three days after being pricked by a scorpion. An antivenom had been purchased from Syria on the third day, but it was already too late for the child.
“It is inconceivable that, in the twenty-first century, a child should die of a scorpion sting when we have so many medical possibilities at hand. It is a critical situation that can be avoided if the government pays its species some attention.”
Tarif expresses a similar frustration but is comforted by LVC’s initiative; despite the inability to produce antidotes, the company provides facilities abroad with the means to create them for Lebanon and beyond.
“Not to mention, of course, the discoveries they are making on the medical uses of venom,” he says.
As a professor of biology and biochemistry at the Lebanese University, Dr. Ziad Fajloun is one of the local scientists studying venoms produced by LVC.
In his 25 years of scorpion research, he claims he always felt there was something missing.
“I found the missing piece when I was introduced to LVC three years ago,” he says. “Studying Moroccan and Tunisian scorpions has been gratifying, no doubt. But there’s a special kind of pride you get when you’re dealing with Lebanese – with your – scorpions.”
He explains that although venom is similar in composition across species, there remains a uniqueness in each.
“LVC has granted me the privilege to examine the never-before-studied Lebanese species for their uniqueness and potential medical uses.”
In cancer research, Fajloun and Borges highlight the possibilities of a scorpion toxin called chlorotoxin, discovered in a Palestinian species, in aiding the diagnosis and treatment of malignant brain tumors.
“Before conducting a biopsy, a surgeon needs to know where exactly a tumor is,” explains Borges. “Chlorotoxin does just that – it “paints” cancerous cells and makes the identification of their location, and consequently the diagnosis of disease, easier.”
He adds that chlorotoxin also helps disrupt a cancerous invasion in the brain: to destroy a healthy cell, cancerous cells need to shrink before releasing substances that break down its protective membrane – and chlorotoxin has been found to interrupt this process.
“But research on chlorotoxin is still preliminary. It can’t be sent for general use in hospitals until all its effects on humans – good and bad – have been discovered.”
Because of their exquisite action on ion channels in the brain, Fajloun claims scorpion toxins may be more efficient in treating neurological disorders like epilepsy than cancer.
Within the complex nervous system, ion channels are doorways that open and close when stimulated. They mediate the passage of electrical signals to the muscles, enabling or inhibiting their movement.
“In an epileptic seizure, these channels become incredibly active and remain open, stimulating body muscles nonstop,” explains Fajloun. “But there are scorpion toxins that have been found to block the channels. Think what help they would be during a seizure.”
Despite their benefits, these toxins cannot be integrated into medicine yet. More research on their nature and function is needed, emphasizes Fajloun, “otherwise we could meet unpleasant surprise effects.”
At the mention of Lebanese scorpions, he smiles hopefully. “Imagine what uses we can find in our scorpions – what secrets we can discover and what help we can be to science – if we had the state’s support to take research further.”
He encourages Lebanese students interested in biology or chemistry to pursue venom studies, highlighting their active participation and promotion of the field as a means to earn the government’s assistance.
A recent biology graduate from the Lebanese American University, Hussein Faour expresses awe at the discovery of LVC’s work.
“I didn’t know about this field. But now that I do, I hope to look into it.”
Back at the LVC workplace, Tarif observes as his team handles the desert-colored, highly toxic Baalbeck species Leiurus abdullahbayrami.
As they collect the final venom drop, he sighs in relief and a new set of words echo in his mind: we got this.