By David Leff

In ancient Greece, an ailing citizen might take his ache, pain or injury to the shrineof Aesculapius, god of medicine. There, while the patient slept, according to mythology,the deity would send a non-poisonous serpent to lick his lesions. The sufferer wouldawaken cured.

Recently, The Lancet reported that a multidisciplinary team of Italian molecularbiologists and medical historians has analyzed the saliva of Europe’s largest snake, Elaphequatuorlineata, an ophidian species associated with Aesculapius. He is usuallydepicted carrying a staff with a serpent twined around it.

Using monoclonal antibody detection and laser densitometry, the scientists“established the immunoreactivity of a salivary sample of E. quatuorlineatato be equivalent to 60 ng/ml of murine EGF“ -- epidermal growth factor.

“EGF was first discovered in the saliva of mice 30 years ago,“ said LarryKurtz, director of corporate communications for Chiron Corp.

Aesculapius learned the healing arts from a Centaur named Chiron, and the biotechnologycorporation of the same name is researching the wound-healing potential of salivary growthfactors. It genetically engineered EGF in yeast cells, and has it in a Phase III clinicaltrial as a topical aid to recovery of the eye following cataract surgery.