Deadly Spider Venom Holds Promise as Stroke Treatment

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Your brain may be hardwired to fear spiders, but new research shows that spiders may in fact protect the brain from the devastating effects of stroke.

Researchers from Australia have identified a protein in the toxic venom of the funnel-web spider that, when administered, has significantly improved brain functioning in animals, according to the study appearing in the journal PNAS.

Credit: Max and Dee Bernt/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“We believe that we have, for the first time, found a way to minimize the effects of brain damage after a stroke,” said study author Glenn King, head of the chemistry and structural biology division of the University of Queensland in Australia.

Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the United States and nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, those numbers increase significantly — about 6 million people die from stroke every year and millions of others suffer from permanent cognitive and functional disability.

Yet the researchers hope that the deadly venom of the funnel-web spider can help save lives and improve the outcomes for those who survive. Their work in hunting and capturing the dangerous spiders was the first step to identifying a key protein in the spider’s venom.

Related: Older People Who Exercise More Likely to Survive Strokes, Study Says

“The small protein we discovered, Hi1a, blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the brain, which are key drivers of brain damage after stroke,” said King.

The results so far, gained in studies on rats, show a powerful way to limit the effects of stroke damage.

“During preclinical studies, we found that a single dose of Hi1a administered up to eight hours after stroke protected brain tissue and drastically improved neurological performance,” said King. “This world-first discovery will help us provide better outcomes for stroke survivors by limiting the brain damage and disability caused by this devastating injury.”

More Studies Needed to Refine Treatment

While the use of venom as a treatment method for stroke sufferers may be years away for humans, the researchers envision a practical therapy that can improve patient outcomes and reduce the tremendous burden on survivors.

“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,” said Stephen Davis, director of the Melbourne Brain Center at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“The next step is to determine whether these very encouraging results can be translated into successful human benefits in clinical trials,” Davis added.

Defect of the blood-brain barrier after stroke shown in MRI. Image/Caption Credit: Hellerhoff/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

That next step is already underway, noted King. “We are now working to secure financial support to fast-track this promising stroke therapy towards clinical trials,” he said.

While they wait for their innovative approach to move forward, the potential for venom-protein treatment remains one of the most exciting breakthroughs in stroke therapy in years. Currently, no treatment exists to reduce the disease burden after an event.

“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,” said King.

“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,” King added.

Related: High Levels of This Inherited Protein May Cause Heart Attack, Stroke

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.