If you're anything like me, you've spent most of your life trying to avoid tarantula venom. In the future, you may be reaching for the stuff.
In recent years, scientists have identified a component of tarantula venom that they say could one day ease your headache, backache or other body ache. That peptide toxin, called ProTx-II, could make for an ideal painkiller due to its high potency and the way it selectively inhibits pain receptors in the brain, researchers say. Peptides, like proteins, are chains of amino acids, but the molecules are smaller.
Scientists have already determined that ProTx-II binds to Nav 1.7, an important pain receptor. In the latest look at the link between creepy crawlies' venom and your brain, scientists from Australia's University of Queensland are using 3D imaging to explore exactly how ProTx-II from the Peruvian green velvet tarantula binds with brain cell membranes to inhibit pain.
They presented their findings at the Biophysical Society's 60th annual meeting, currently being held in Los Angeles, and hope their research could lead to an alternative to ineffective painkillers and opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin that can cause extreme drowsiness and be highly addictive.
"Our results show that the cell membrane plays an important role in the ability of ProTx-II to inhibit the pain receptor," Sónia Troeira Henriques, senior research officer at the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience, said in a statement. "In particular, the neuronal cell membranes attract the peptide to the neurons, increase its concentration close to the pain receptors, and lock the peptide in the right orientation to maximize its interaction with the target."
While animal venoms have long been used for therapeutic purposes, only a small fraction have been tested for their pharmaceutical utilities. Last year brought Venom Knowledge Base, or VenomKB, a database out of Columbia University that aggregates and identifies therapeutic uses of animal venoms and venom compounds.
Scores of people live with chronic pain that affects them both physically and emotionally. Painkillers derived from tarantula venom could provide them with some relief, while also proving the ultimate PR coup for the much-feared spiders.