Scientists undertook the gargantuan task of analyzing the compound chemicals found in the venom of 206 spiders, and they discovered what may lead to a new generation of painkillers, improving the lives of over 1 billion people.

Spider venom may be crucial in alleviating chronic pain – something which affects 20% of all people. Image via Wiki Commons.

While humans are hard-wired to avoid potentially venomous creatures like snakes or spiders – they may actually be the key to alleviating serious pains. A team of Australian researchers has discovered 7 compounds that have a high therapeutic potential in dealing with chronic pain.

“A compound that blocks Nav1.7 channels is of particular interest,” said Glenn King, who led the study at Australia’s University of Queensland.

The key here lies in the so-called  Nav1.7 channel, which is associated with pain and inflammation in humans. Nav1.7 is a sodium ion channel that in humans usually expressed at high levels in pain neurons. If the Nav1.7 channel can be blocked, then the unpleasant sensations caused by pain and inflammation can be stopped.

“A compound that blocks Nav1.7 channels is of particular interest for us,” Professor Glenn King of the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, an author of the study, said in a press release. “Previous research shows indifference to pain among people who lack Nav1.7 channels due to a naturally-occurring genetic mutation — so blocking these channels has the potential of turning off pain in people with normal pain pathways.”

Chronic pain is a major problem worldwide. About one in five people globally suffer from chronic pain – their life quality drastically reduced; this also carries a huge economic burden – with chronic pain causing losses of over $600 billion in the US alone – more than the economic costs of cancer, diabetes, and stroke combined. Finding a way to alleviate this problem would be a huge deal.

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So what makes spider venom so special? Well, there is an estimate of 45,000 species worldwide, many of which are venomous, and quite a few of these venomous ones block nerve activity. For all this stunning biodiversity and this myriad of chemical compounds… we haven’t really studied them all that much. Many secrets still lie hidden in the spiders’ venom – and this may be one of them.

“A conservative estimate indicates that there are nine million spider-venom peptides, and only 0.01% of this vast pharmacological landscape has been explored so far,” Dr. Julie Kaae Klint, an author of the study, said in the press release.

Still, that’s not to say that spider venom hasn’t been studied at all for its therapeutic potential – just that it’s understudied. For example, in 2012 researchers dug into its potential use to treat muscular dystrophy… but from what I could find, nothing has been developed ever since. Even with this research, while it shows great promise in dealing with chronic pain, it will still be a couple few years before we actually see this tested in a clinical setting. But it’s a great reminder that natural chemistry still has a lot of secrets for us – secrets still awaiting to be discovered, if we don’t destroy them.

“Untapping this natural source of new medicines brings a distinct hope of accelerating the development of a new class of painkillers that can help people who suffer from chronic pain that cannot be treated with current treatment options,” Klint said in the press release.

The findings were published in the British Journal of Pharmacology

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