Could Tarantula Venom Cure Your Aches and Pains?

Mar 5, 2014

Researchers at Yale have identified what they say is a more efficient way to screen thousands of spider neurotoxins against different pain receptors in the body. Above, the Peruvian Green Velvet tarantula.
Credit Yale University

Spider venom could be the next big thing to cure pain, according to research reported in the March issue of Current Biology from Yale University.

There are a lot of different components in venom. And here’s a cheery thought: not every part is out to kill you. 

Venoms are like chemical cocktails. They have bad parts, but they also do good stuff.

"Spider venoms contain a vast pharmacological diversity of chemical compounds," said Michael Nitabach, associate professor at Yale University, and senior author of the paper. He said venoms are like chemical cocktails. They have bad parts, but they also have compounds that do good stuff, like blocking pain receptors. 

So Nitabach wondered, what if a scientist could pick a certain spider poison off the shelf and engineer its venom so only the good parts were expressed? Take for example, ProTX-1, which Nitabach's team identified as "a particular peptide component of the venom of the Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula" that blocks a pain receptor in the body. (Geeks: the pain receptor is called "TRPA1.")

Making the venom from scratch and would be costly, but if a scientist can create a genetic blueprint of venom, they can feed that data to a cell and let biology do all the hard work. It's called "toxineering" and Nitabach's team used their blueprint of ProTX-1, to modify the venom, engineering out its bad parts and leaving behind the component that blunts pain in the body. "

"What's really cool about this is that I think there really is the potential for large-scale scale up," Nitaback said. Going forward, he is hopeful his "toxineering" technique could be used to quickly and easily screen thousands of different toxic combinations against other pain receptors in the body. And that could mean a lot more pain treatments from naturally occurring (and genetically mutated) spider venom in the coming years.