Spider venom could lead to IBS treatment

By Georgie Meredith June 7, 2016
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Venom from a species of tarantula could lead to the first effective treatment of irritable bowel syndrome.

SCIENTISTS HAVE USED spider venom to identify a specific protein that transmits pain to different parts of the human body. 

The research used the venom of a West African tarantula to identify a protein, known as Nav 1.1, which usually works to signal pain to the back and spinal region.

The study, published this week in Nature, revealed that Nav 1.1 was also present in pain-sensing nerves in the abdomen, which can cause extreme levels of pain such as that felt by people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

venom milking

Milking spider venom for research. (Image courtesy University of Queensland)

“Irritable bowel syndrome places a large burden on individuals and on the health system, but there are currently no effective treatments,” said Stuart Brierley from the University of Adelaide, a co-author of the study. “Instead, sufferers are advised to avoid triggers that will cause their symptoms to flare up.”

“Identifying the crucial role Nav 1.1 makes in the signalling of chronic pain is the first step in developing novel treatments,” Stuart added.

The venom of 109 spiders, scorpions and centipedes was used as part of the study, however toxins from the venom of the Togo starburst tarantula (Heteroscodra maculata) induced the strongest amount of pain.

Targeting pain with tarantula toxins

Spider venom can tell us is a lot about how the human body identifies pain signals.

“Spiders make toxins to kill prey and defend themselves against predators, and the most effective way to defend against a predator is to make them feel immediate pain,” explained Glenn King from the University of Queensland, another co-author on the study.

“Spider venom should therefore be full of molecules that stimulate pain-sensing nerves, allowing us to discover new pain pathways by examining which nerves are activated when exposed to spider toxins,” he said.

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In follow-up research, Glenn and Stuart developed inhibitors of Nav 1.1 which have shown great success in easing pain in mice with IBS.

“We hope that this work will lead to a new generation of analgesics that target the Nav 1.1 channel,” said Glenn. “In a sense these would be like ‘personalised analgesics’ for people with IBS pain or with other types of mechanical pain.”