Venom from one of the world’s deadliest spiders could one day save the lives of heart attack victims.
- The Fraser Island funnel-web is genetically isolated and its venom is unique
- UQ researchers found the venom can block cell death after heart attacks
- Several years of research is still needed to develop the discovery into a treatment
University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have learnt that the poison from the deadly funnel-web spider contains a molecule that can buy time when heart cells are dying.
While years of research is still needed, experts say the signs are very promising — and sorely needed.
With nearly 60,000 Australians suffering heart attacks every year, the research is seen as a potentially vital way to pivot the way patients are treated.
The discovery was made by a team led by Dr Nathan Palpant and biochemist Professor Glenn King from UQ and cardiologist Peter Macdonald from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney.
Professor King said it was a particular kind of funnel-web found on Fraser Island (K’gari) that had them excited.
Being on an island, it is genetically isolated.
The venom of this particular funnel-web contains up to 3,000 different molecules.
Professor King’s team discovered one of them, known as Hi1a, could block the cell death message after a heart attack, protecting the heart after major injury and potentially preventing or minimising muscle damage.
“During a heart attack there is an initial loss of heart muscle cells in regions most affected and you can get a spreading wave of damage that can take hours or days to develop,” he said.
“Blood flow to the heart is reduced, resulting in a lack of oxygen to heart muscle.
“So what this is doing is preventing that spreading wave of damage.
“It prevents damage to the heart muscle cells or even the brain cells.”
Stopping cell suicide
Dr Palpant said they discovered the protein from the funnel-web’s venom blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the heart.
In pre-clinical models of heart attacks, they found it blocks the death message and prevents so-called cell suicide.
“So we see improved heart cell survival,” he said.
“This is the first time that ion channels have been identified as a target for treating the fallout after heart attacks.”
There are currently no drugs in clinical use that prevent the damage caused by heart attacks.
The drug candidate, administered via injection, was tested using beating heart cells exposed to heart attack stresses, to see if the drug improved survival.
The team aims to take it to human clinical trials in the next two to three years.
‘This could be life-changing’
Professor Macdonald said the research could also increase the number and quality of donor hearts.
He said treating hearts with Hi1a and reducing cell death would increase how far a heart could be transported and improve the likelihood of a successful transplant.
“Usually, if the donor heart has stopped beating for more than 30 minutes before retrieval, the heart can’t be used,” he said.
“For people who are literally on death’s door, this could be life-changing.”
When to administer the treatment
Professor MacDonald said the ultimate aim would be for first responders to administer the drug at the scene of an emergency.
“Because the sooner you can intervene in someone having a heart attack or a stroke, the better your chances of getting a good recovery with minimal damage to the heart or the brain,” he said.
Emma Wilson, 51, suffered a heart attack six years ago.
She was an amateur body builder and fitness fanatic, but had a life-threatening emergency while on a family cruise in the Pacific.
She said the pain was so excruciating and if someone said “we have a drug derived from a spider venom I would have just said, ‘put it in’.
“A hundred per cent, I would say put it in right now,” she said.
“If they can take something from a natural environment which can technically kill us, but technically save a life as well, it serves a good purpose.”
English-born Ms Wilson said spiders — particularly funnel-webs — “freak her out”, but less now she knows about the good they can potentially do health-wise.
The Heart Foundation’s chief medical adviser Professor Garry Jennings backs the research.
“At this stage it is potentially a very significant breakthrough,” he said.
“As we know with our experience with vaccines and other things, there are all sorts of traps along the way — but it is a very good start.
“We usually see these kind of drug candidates available within five to 10 years.
“But what we have learnt during COVID is we really can accelerate these processes, so if we can keep things moving, hopefully it will be quicker than that.
“I am not particularly fond of funnel-web spiders, but I am really pleased to see they can play their part and make a contribution to human health and not just scare the life out of me every time I see one.”
The research has been published in the medical journal Circulation.