Tarantula venom could be used as a potent pain reliever

Pain relief has come a long way, with many medicines developed to ease pain and promote comfort. Previous research has shown that venom can be a potent pain reliever. Snake venom has been widely studied as a potential source of pain relievers, especially for chronic and debilitating pain. Now, a team of scientists has found that spider venom, particularly from Tarantulas, could be used as a potent pain reliever for various conditions. The research is published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Tarantula spider. Image Credit: Lilreta Ladd / Shutterstock
Tarantula spider. Image Credit: Lilreta Ladd / Shutterstock

The researchers at the University of Queensland have found that molecules in Tarantula venom could be an alternative to opioid pain killers for people seeking chronic pain relief. The venom from the Chinese bird spider, which has a leg span of about 20 cm, could potentially relieve severe pain, without side effects and the risk of addiction.

Opioid addiction is a long-lasting and chronic disease that can lead to significant health and social problems. Opioids are a class of drugs that affect the nervous system, producing feelings of pleasure and pain relief. In 2018 alone, 128 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids each day. The misuse of and addiction of opioid include prescribed pain relievers, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and heroin.

Millions of people live with chronic and neuropathic pain. Though there is a broad array of treatments to provide pain relief, many of these drugs are deemed addictive. This leaves many scientists and researchers across the globe to chase down potential new therapeutic agents. At the same time, the studies spark a better understanding of how molecules with painkiller activity function. The breakthrough discovery of alternative painkillers can save many lives and improve the quality of life of people who suffer from chronic pain.

Even if opioids are effective in producing pain relief, they come with many unwanted side effects, including constipation, nausea, and the risk of addiction.

The spider venom

The Chinese Bird Spider is an aggressive species of spider and a type of tarantula that can be found in the tropical rainforests of China and Vietnam. The spider usually preys on small insects and other creatures, including crickets, mice, and cockroaches.

To determine if the venom from spiders can act as a pain reliever, the team designed new tarantula venom mini proteins that can help relieve severe and chronic pain without addiction.

"Our study found that a mini-protein in tarantula venom from the Chinese bird spider, known as Huwentoxin-IV, binds to pain receptors in the body. By using a three-pronged approach in our drug design that incorporates the mini-protein, its receptor, and the surrounding membrane from the spider venom, we've altered this mini-protein resulting in greater potency and specificity for specific pain receptors," Dr. Christina Schroeder from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience, said.

"This ensures that just the right amount of the mini-protein attaches itself to the receptor and the cell membrane surrounding the pain receptors," she added.

In mice models, the team used the mini proteins for pain relief, and have shown promising results. They helped reduce pain.

The study sheds light on other possible means to provide pain relief without using drugs that may lead to addiction and overdose. These molecules derived from tarantula venom could help pharmaceuticals develop potent pain killers, without the unwanted side effects of the opioid. Most importantly, trying out alternatives can reduce the burden of opioid addiction and overdose, which is a massive predicament in the United States and other countries.

Opioid addiction has become a widespread public health issue over the past years, with governments across the globe grappling with deaths related to overdose of the drugs. High-end opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl, and morphine are restricted in most countries, but some doctors still prescribe these drugs, particularly for patients with debilitating and chronic pain.

Journal reference:
  • Agwa, A., Tran, P., Schroeder, C. et al. (2020). Manipulation of a spider peptide toxin alters its affinity for lipid bilayers and potency and selectivity for voltage-gated sodium channel subtype 1.7. https://www.jbc.org/content/295/15/5067
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

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Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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