Tarantula Venom Could Be Used to Create a Powerful Pain Reliever, Scientists Say

PHOTO: The Chilean rose-hair tarantula is seen in this undated stock photo. Getty Images
The Chilean rose-hair tarantula is seen in this undated stock photo. Researchers are investigating if tarantulas could be key to helping with pain relief.

A spider bite usually results in itching, aching or other pains, but researchers say that venom may someday have a medical use as an effective pain reliever.

This week, researchers from Australia presented their early findings on a peptide found in the venom of the Peruvian green velvet tarantula called ProTx-II. Sónia Troeira Henriques, senior research officer at the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience, presented at the Biophysical Society's 60th Annual Meeting currently being held in Los Angeles.

"Our group is specifically interested in understanding the mode of action of this toxin to gain information that can guide us in the design and optimization of novel pain therapeutics," Henriques said in a statement.

In previous cases, venom from other insects and animals, such as the cone snail, have led to powerful pain relievers. While a cocktail of venom straight from an animal can lead to lasting injuries or even death, new venom-derived chemicals can be used to treat pain since individually the chemicals can target receptors where pain signals are transmitted without inflicting harm on the patient from the full venom cocktail.

The team used 3-D imaging to see the structure of ProTx-II and determine where this "key" could fit in neuropathways to stop pain signals. They found that the peptide bonded in neuron cells, but they did not find the exact receptor in the cells.

They also found the neuronal cell membrane could play an important role by attracting peptides like ProTx-II to the neuron cells.

The group is now working on refining this toxin so that it has fewer side effects and could possibly someday be used as a pain reliever.

John Bingham, associate professor in the department of molecular biosciences and biological engineering at the University of Hawaii, said that more and more toxins from venoms are being studied to find potential medical uses.

"Nature is being used as a specific template," Bingham told ABC News. "This where we’re going ... moving to synthetic peptide production."

Bingham said the original toxins are often synthesized in order to help the body more effectively absorb the chemical.

"We mimic what nature has provided us with as a template," said Bingham. "We minimize the compound to be smaller and maintain specificity and selectivity because that’s where we're going to get the directed drug activity."