Spider venom could be key to treating stroke

Funnel-web spiders may be able to save stroke victims.
BEN RUSHTON/SUPPLIED

Funnel-web spiders may be able to save stroke victims.

Funnel-web spider venom may one day be used to save the lives of stroke patients, new research shows.

A peptide found inside the venom of Australia's Fraser Island funnel-web spider has been found to slow the death of brain cells in rats after they suffer an induced stroke. 

If successfully developed for clinical use, researchers hope it will complement current stroke treatment.

"We believe that we have, for the first time, found a way to minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke," Glenn King from the University of Queensland Institute for Molecular Bioscience told AAP.

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Stroke is one of Australia's biggest killers and cause of disability. According to Australia's Stroke Foundation, there will be more than 55,000 new and recurrent strokes this year.

Every 10 minutes an Australian suffers a stroke, when the brain is starved of blood by either a blocked artery (the most common) or a haemorrhage in the brain itself.

Professor King told Fairfax Media that, in cells starved of oxygen, the peptide in the venom (Hi1a) blocks the signal that initiates programmed cell death, keeping the neurons alive.

The research, published on Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the Hi1a peptide was effective in rats even eight hours after a stroke.

"This could provide a good window of protection for treatment of the stroke to occur," Professor King said.

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His hope is that any drug developed from the funnel-web venom can be applied by paramedics before the patient's arrival at hospital.

"There are two main stroke types and neurologists can't treat patients until they know which one they are dealing with," he said. 

His hope is that any drug developed from the funnel-web venom will keep neurons alive after both types of stroke as patients are taken to hospital.

"Time is neurons saved," he said. 

While Professor King is optimistic there is a "clear path forward to clinical trials in two years", others in the field are more cautious.

"It's a very exciting discovery and a very big effect," said Neil Spratt from the University of Newcastle John Hunter Hospital. "However, two years is very, very ambitious."

Professor Spratt, a neurologist who leads the stroke translation laboratory at the University of Newcastle, said the study relied on injecting the peptide directly into the rats' brains. "We can't do that with a stroke patient," he said.

"They are right to be excited but how they get any drug into the brain is a hurdle they need to cross," said Professor Pratt, who was not connected with the study.

His caution was echoed by University of Sydney clinician Craig Anderson. "It's a very interesting and promising study," he said. "But even if it has application, nothing will be developed for decades.

"What looks promising in rats can fall away by the wayside," he warned.

Professor King said where previous rat studies had failed was the short time span of efficacy studied. "None of the other studies in rats showed efficacy after eight hours," he said.

Professor Anderson, a director of neurological and mental health at The George Institute, said: "The key to reducing damage is restoring blood flow as quickly as possible, so the direction of this research will be on top of proven therapies."

Stroke Foundation clinical council chair Bruce Campbell said: "This research is very interesting, however more work needs to be done."

Professor King said the peptide had been found in the Fraser Island funnel-web. "There are 35 species of funnel-web," he said. "We assume there will be similar peptides in others, such as the Sydney funnel-web."

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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