A new study conducted in Australia discovered that a protein found in spider venom could help scientists design a potent medicine for the treatment of an unusual form of epilepsy.
A severe form of epilepsy, called Dravet syndrome, typically appears during the first 12 months of life.
Some factors that can trigger this condition are seizures, which increases in temperature and bright lights. Children with Dravet syndrome may be affected by delay in growth/development, speech impairment, and sleep disturbances.
There is no treatment for Dravet syndrome since the condition is resistant to current treatments. Unfortunately, children who are affected often die before they reach adulthood.
Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, both in Australia, set out to find answers in an unusual place: spider venom.
Spider Venom and Epilepsy
The researchers were led by Prof. Glenn King, from UQ, whose research focuses on harnessing various types of venom to be used medicinally. His UQ laboratory houses “the most broad collection of venoms in the world.”
As to why he believes spider venom might help children with Dravet syndrome, Prof King said;
“About 80 percent of Dravet syndrome cases are caused by a mutation in a gene called SCN1A. When this gene doesn’t work as it should, sodium channels in the brain, which regulate brain activity, do not function correctly.”
The mutation in the SCN1A gene changes a subunit of fast-spiking inhibitory interneurons. When these inhibitory neurons fire, they dampen down neural activity. However, if they are not fully operational, the brain is more vulnerable to hyperexcitability, which intensifies the chance of seizures.
The researchers investigated the effect of a spider venom peptide on a mouse model of Dravet syndrome. According to the research team, the molecule, called Hm1a, zeroed in on the exact receptors that are affected in this condition.
Prof. Glenn King said;
“In our studies, the peptide from spider venom was able to target the specific channels affected by Dravet, restoring the function of the brain neurons and eliminating seizures.”
Their findings was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Producing drugs using spider venom is unusual even though the use of venom to create drugs is not totally a novel idea.
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For instance, ACE inhibitors which is the common blood pressure drugs, were formed using the venom of South American pit vipers.
Prof. Steven Petrou, from the Florey Institute — who team up with Prof. King on the new study said “spiders kill their prey through venom compounds that target the nervous system, unlike snakes for example, whose venom targets the cardiovascular system.”
“Millions of years of evolution have developed spider venom to specifically target certain ion channels, without causing side effects on others, and drugs derived from spider venoms maintain this accuracy.”
The researchers hope that these findings will trigger further investigation. Prof. Petrou believes that the discovery might help develop precision medicines for treatment of Dravet syndrome epilepsy.