Growing up in the Sonoran Desert and keeping a pet spider in her kitchen, Dr. Leslie Boyer thinks snakes, scorpions and spiders are “totally cool.”

So cool, she has spent much of her career studying them and their venom.

Boyer, director of the University of Arizona’s VIPER Institute, recently shared her life’s work and what she called “some pretty icky pictures” with students and families at St. Gregory College Preparatory School’s Spotlight on Science.

She told students how she and a team of cross-border researchers developed scorpion antivenom that is saving lives internationally.

Boyer was named the 2013 Arizona Bioscience Researcher of the Year by the Arizona Bioindustry Association for her work as lead investigator for the scorpion antivenom clinical trials program conducted in Arizona and Nevada by the UA. The work resulted in U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the antivenom Anascorp.

Anascorp was developed with the Institute of Biotechnology of the Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico.

Boyer, who grew up in Tucson and attended Lulu Walker Elementary, Canyon del Oro High School, the UA and Harvard Medical School, became interested in studying venomous creatures when she came across a baby that had been stung by a scorpion when she was chief resident in pediatrics at the University of Arizona Medical Center.

“The baby was wiggling in this really outrageously strange way,” Boyer said.

The baby was experiencing the neurological impact of a scorpion sting, and while he was safe because he was in an intensive care unit, thousands of small children died in Mexico each year from scorpion stings because there was no ICU nearby and no antivenom, she said.

Boyer, who also helped develop CroFab, the antivenom given to victims of rattlesnake bites, walked students through the process of creating scorpion antivenom in horses, and told them how it is saving lives.

The drug is the result of a 12-year collaboration of researchers with partners in business and industry from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development named Boyer one of 30 heroes of rare diseases in 2013.

She showed the photo of a boy who is the brother of the last local child to die from a scorpion sting before antivenom was available.

“This picture reminds me why my team needs to work so hard,” Boyer said.

The event included telescope exploration with Steward Observatory’s Andrew Marble and displays of science projects by St. Gregory middle school students.

St. Gregory, at 3231 N. Craycroft Road, is an independent, private school for grades 5-12. It has no religious affiliation.

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