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Tarantula toxins may help treat pain in many conditions

The toxins could lead to the development of more precise treatment for pain, including conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, researchers say.

By Stephen Feller
Two toxins from the heteroscodra maculata, a tarantula found in West Africa referred to as the ornamental babboon or Togo starburst tarantula, may lead to the development of better, more precise drugs for pain treatment. Photo by Greg Hume/Wikimedia
Two toxins from the heteroscodra maculata, a tarantula found in West Africa referred to as the ornamental babboon or Togo starburst tarantula, may lead to the development of better, more precise drugs for pain treatment. Photo by Greg Hume/Wikimedia

SAN FRANCISCO, June 7 (UPI) -- Two toxins found in the potent venom of a West African tarantula may hold to key to more specific pain control in a varied list of conditions, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco found the toxins while screening poisons from a wide variety of spiders, scorpions, and centipedes, and found in lab experiments the tarantula's toxins activate a specific pathway in cells that was not previously known to be involved in the sensation of pain.

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The toxins may lead to better treatment for pain connected to everything from irritable bowel syndrome to dental work and chronic pain conditions, researchers say, based on the new understanding of pain gained during the study.

For the study, published in the journal Nature, researchers had been screening hundreds of venoms contained in a library maintained at the University of Queensland. Each of the venoms uses some type of molecule causing significant pain to victims, in addition to any other effects.

Many of the venoms contain hundreds of active peptides involved with the chemical's activity, though the venom of Heteroscodra maculate, commonly called the Togo starburst tarantula, was found to trigger a sodium channel in A-delta nerve fibers.

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The reaction of A-delta fibers causes the initial shocking sensation of pain after an injury, or spider bite, before C fibers create the throbbing pain that generally continues after a burn or cut.

The discovery of the sodium channel's role in A-delta fibers causing pain could lead to better treatments, even if toxins from the West African spider prove to be ineffective in humans -- though researchers are hopeful.

"These spiders had millions of years of evolution to come up with these potent and specific toxins," Dr. Jeremiah Osteen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Francisco, said in a press release. "They're tools one might be hard pressed to design as well in the lab."

To identify the chemicals in the tarantula's poison causing the activation of the sodium channel, the researchers separated the venom and applied individual chemicals to rodent sensory neurons to see which ones worked.

The two toxins researchers identify in the study activated the sensory nerves, as did synthesized versions of the same toxins. Additional experiments with nerves in a mouse model of irritable bowel syndrome showed the toxins activated the same pathway, suggesting it could have a broader use with more research.

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Aside from the findings on pain, the same sodium channel has been linked to the development of epilepsy, autism and Alzheimer's disease, which researchers suggest could also be affected by further investigation of both the spider toxins and the sodium pathway.

"It's a good problem to have," Osteen said. "We didn't know which of the two findings we should be more excited about."

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