23 March 2017

Spider venom may offer hope to stroke victims

The venom of potentially deadly funnel web spiders could minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke.


Almost all spiders have venomous fangs, but in most cases they are not dangerous to humans because their poison is relatively weak.

One dangerous example is the Australian funnel web spider, whose poison can be deadly to humans. This fact could however be used to our advantage as a protein in their poison may minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke, according to new research.

Minimising brain damage

One should, however, always be careful around spiders because we don't always know which ones are dangerous and which ones aren't.

Strokes claim six million lives worldwide each year, and five million survivors are left with a permanent disability. In South Africa, about 130 heart attacks and 240 strokes occur daily, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa

Scientists from the University of Queensland and Monash University said spider venom was always a good place to look for proteins to help in medical treatments as they have evolved to target the nervous systems of insects.

Dangerous toxins

Lead researcher Glenn King told AFP this led them to see what they could find in funnel webs, which carry one of the world's most dangerous toxins.

Three were caught on Fraser Island on the Queensland coast and taken back to the lab to be milked.

This involved administering an electric charge to their fangs, causing the muscles to contract and the venom to be squeezed out.

"The small protein we discovered, Hi1a, blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the brain, which are key drivers of brain damage after stroke," he said after injecting a synthetic version into rats.

Exceptional levels of protection

"We believe that we have, for the first time, found a way to minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke."

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with King saying the small protein showed great promise as a future treatment.

"One of the most exciting things about Hi1a is that it provides exceptional levels of protection for eight hours after stroke onset, which is a remarkably long window of opportunity for treatment," he said.

"Hi1a even provides some protection to the core brain region most affected by oxygen deprivation, which is generally considered unrecoverable due to the rapid cell death caused by stroke."

Human trials

Royal Melbourne Hospital Brain Centre director Stephen Davis said the pre-clinical work was encouraging.

"A safe and effective neuroprotectant could be given in the ambulance to most stroke patients before hospital arrival and enable many more stroke victims to be treated," he said.

He added that the next step would be to determine whether these very encouraging results can be translated into successful human benefits in clinical trials.

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