Last updated October 25, 2018 at 1:34 pm
Tarantula venom may directly target a faulty gene and restore normal brain activity.
Spiders are often the stuff of childhood nightmares, but one species could provide the answer to a debilitating childhood disease.
Australian scientists have used a peptide isolated from the venom of the West African Togo Starbust tarantula (Heteroscodra maculate) in mouse models to treat Dravet syndrome, a severe myoclonic epilepsy that affects children before their first birthday and can cause intellectual disabilities, multiple daily seizures and early death.
The condition is caused by mutation in a gene that produces a protein critical for calming electrical activity in the brain. Sufferers only have half the normal amount of this protein, meaning their brain is overactive.
“We reasoned that if we could just make the remaining protein work harder, it would effectively pick up the slack, much like a cyclist on a tandem bicycle can help her exhausted passenger by pedalling harder to maintain speed,” said Professor Steven Petrou, Director of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.
The chemistry of venoms
The idea of using tarantula venom came from Petrou’s collaborator, Professor Glenn King from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland. He studies the chemistry of venoms from a range of arthropod predators, including spiders, scorpions and centipedes, for their potential to treat chronic pain, epilepsy and stroke.
In the recent study, young Dravet mice before treatment displayed reduced activity in a specific type of brain cell whose job it is to reduce overall brain activity. However, after a compound from the spider venom was applied to nerve cells from their brains, their activity immediately returned to normal.
“Infusion into the brains of the Dravet mice not only restored normal brain function within minutes, but over three days we noted a dramatic reduction in seizures in the mice and increased survival,” Petrou said. “Every single untreated mouse died.”
The paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.