The Butantan Institute

A Hundred Years on the Leading Edge of Science and Technology

What We DoWhere We Stand Now
The Campaign: The Next One Hundred Years
Help in a Good Cause


In the year 1898, the Brazilian port of Santos was swept by an outbreak of bubonic plague.

There was nothing remarkable about this. Brazil's public health service was in deep crisis; epidemics of various types were commonplace throughout the country. Loss of life was severe. Such a state of affairs could hardly be regarded as good advertisement for the country at a time when the influx of much-needed immigrants from Europe was at its height.

What happened in Santos might have been just another epidemic. In the event it was to prove far more.

Alert to the situation, the Bacteriological Institute set up a special unit to produce anti-plague serum in 1899. The chosen site was the Butantan Fazenda, a farm not far from the city of Sao Paulo, acquired by the government for exactly this purpose. On February 3rd, 1901, the unit gained its independence and a resounding title: the Butantan Serumtherapy Institute.

The Director was Dr. Vital Brasil, a native of the state of Minas Gerais from the town of Campanha, soon to make his name in the field of public health. Under his leadership, the Butantan Institute engaged upon research into animal venom. The study of snakes, scorpions, spiders, led to the production of anti-venom, and brought the institution worldwide recognition. In 1915 the Serumtherapy Institute was again renamed; a hundred years later, it is still the Butantan Institute.

A hundred years! We, the staff of the Butantan Institute, take pride in being able to continue the work of these previous generations. There have been setbacks, many and serious, yet the tradition goes on, alive and active. We feel that now is the right time to announce the campaign "BUTANTAN: THE NEXT ONE HUNDRED YEARS." The purpose of the campaign is to raise funds essential to the work of the institution.

The technical and scientific activities of the Butantan Institute have always had a character of its their own. This is due to the coexistence of two areas: the production of serum, and basic research in the biomedical sciences. For a long time the purely technological aspect has benefited greatly from progress in biomedical research. In the early days of Brazil's university system, the Institute offered excellent conditions for the training and qualification of research scientists. But between 1944 and 1980, financial and administrative problems brought about a decline in scientific activity.

This was the past. Under the directorship of first Prof. Willy Becak and then Pros. Isaias Raw, the Butantan Institute once again assumed a leading role. It now has a staff of about 1,100, of whom 120 are professionals in scientific research.


The basic activities of the Butantan Institute are numerous and varied. They include:

-Basic and applied research in biology and biomedicine, as directly and indirectly related to public health.

-Research into venom: analysis of components; investigation of structures and the ways in which venom act, including biochemical, pharmacological and immunological aspects and molecular biology; the understanding of receptors in the nervous system; identification of factors involved in blood coagulation, inflammation and hypertension; and identification of the components of venom, some of which may be of therapeutic value.

- Development of modern technologies for obtaining animal cell derivates, such as monoclonal antibodies for transplant rejection control; these are already undergoing clinical testing.

The Butantan Institute has the largest collection of snakes in the tropical New World; some 50,000 specimens are kept in the Herpetological Collection, which serves as a center for the study of the distribution, taxonomy and evolution of snakes.

Scientific exchange between the Butantan Institute and universities, in Brazil and abroad, is intense. Some 25 researchers at the Institute are also accredited professors and supervisors in the principal post-graduate courses given by universities in Sao Paulo State. At the moment, more than 50 students are doing post-graduate research under the supervision of members of the Institute's research staff.

During the year, the Institute gives cultural extension courses on how to identify venomous snakes and insects, and teaches first aid to the army, the police and private enterprise - a total of some 2,000 students every year.

The Institute is one of Sao Paulo's major tourist attractions, and is visited by half a million people every year. The Biological Museum displays snakes and insects in their natural surroundings - an important contribution to environmental education. The collections of live snakes are universally popular - even if not universally pleasurable! - attraction.

In 1985 Prof. Isaias Raw was contracted to set up the Biotechnology Laboratory. The underlying aim was to modernize and develop serum and vaccine production, as part of Brazil's National Program for Immunological Self-Sufficiency. In 1988 the Laboratory became the Biotechnology Center; its purpose was to develop new technologies in the field of serums and antigens, haemoderivatives and placenta derivatives such as albumin, catalase, dismutase superoxide, diagnostic kits for blood-transmitted diseases, and monclonal antibodies.


The importance of the Butantan Institute in the realm of public health should now be quite clear. Yet for many years the institution has had enormous financial problems. Funds for investment in research and production have been sparse. The average member of the research staff earns 50% less than his counterpart in a university.

Ths success of the National Program for Immunological Self-Sufficiency demands the incorporation and continual adaptation of technological advances. This involves the rebuilding and modernization of installations for large-scale low-cost production for very high quality serums, vaccines, and other biotechnological substances.


As the Butantan Institute approaches its Centenary Year, the time seems ripe for the launching of our fund-raising campaign: BUTANTAN: THE NEXT ONE HUNDRED YEARS. The purpose: to finance the scientific and technological recovery of the Institute, already under way but hampered by the lack of adequate financial resources. The target: seven million Reals (R$7,000,000, equivalent today to approximately US$7,6000,000) for the modernization of buildings and installations for research and production. The Institute's historic buildings are protected by a Prevention Order; even, so, they are in a precarious state and require urgent attention. Work priorities are:

- Restoration and painting of protected buildings

- Restoration and modernization of the library

- Construction of a new biotechnology laboratory

- Expansion and modernization of the museum

- Construction of electrical, mechanical and carpenter's workshops and machinery to equip them.


The roots of poverty and under-development in Brazil are not hard to find. They flourish in government neglect - particularly with regard to education and health. It is up to society and its institutions to take an active part in matters of such grave importance. The people of Brazil cry out for relief from their sufferings, and against the lamentable conditions of the country's system of public health. The Butantan Institute will do all it can to answer their cry.

Our appeal goes out to everyone. For the next one hundred years, the Butantan Institute has the same great aim: to remain at the leading edge of science and technology. To achieve our aim, we need your help and cooperation. Please lend a helping hand.

Dr. Tetsuo Yamane
Instituto Butantan
Centro de Biotechnologia
Avenue Vital Brasil 1500
05504 Sao Paulo, S.P.

Tel: 011-5511-3726-1127
Fax: 011-5511-3726-1501

See also:
Genetic Engineering News
University of Sao Paulo Laboratory on the Molecular Biology of Nematodes
Herpetology - the study of reptiles and amphibians