Tarantulas are usually the stuff of nightmares and horror stories, but a new study finds that these scream-inducing arachnids may just hold the key to addiction-free pain relief.
Researchers from the University of Queensland believe that molecules found in tarantula venom may be viable as a means of opioid-free pain relief. They’ve already designed a novel tarantula venom mini-protein that shows the potential to treat severe pain without side effects or the possibility of addiction.
Opioids are quite capable of numbing pain, but the carnage these drugs have wreaked due to their addictive properties are well documented. Opioid addiction in the United States has become so prevalent that it is now classified as an epidemic. In 2018 alone, 10.3 million Americans abused an opioid prescription and over 47,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose. There’s no debating the issue; something has to be done to curb opioid use and prescriptions.
Unfortunately, no drug has proven as effective at treating pain as opioids, which is why prescriptions are still being handed out all over the country to this day. If tarantula venom can truly produce a viable pain relief alternative to opioids, those scary spiders could end up saving countless lives.
“Although opioids are effective in producing pain relief, they come with unwanted side-effects like nausea, constipation and the risk of addiction, placing a huge burden on society,” comments Dr. Christina Schroeder from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience in a university release. “Our study found that a mini-protein in tarantula venom from the Chinese bird spider, known as Huwentoxin-IV, binds to pain receptors in the body.”
The specific type of tarantula in question, known as a Chinese bird spider, is not exactly a spider you would want to run into in a dark alley all alone. With a leg span of eight inches, these arachnids are large even by tarantula standards. Moreover, they’re quite venomous; a bite can cause severe nerve damage and render a person completely unable to move.
While all that is undoubtedly terrifying, it’s that numbing venom that holds the key to opioid-free pain relief.
“By using a three-pronged approach in our drug design that incorporates the mini-protein, its receptor, and the surrounding membrane from the spider venom, we’ve altered this mini-protein resulting in greater potency and specificity for specific pain receptors,” Dr. Schroeder explains. “This ensures that just the right amount of the mini-protein attaches itself to the receptor and the cell membrane surrounding the pain receptors.”
The research team has already tested out the mini-protein on mice. Incredibly, it appeared to effectively alleviate the rodents’ pain.
“Our findings could potentially lead to an alternative method of treating pain without the side-effects and reduce many individuals’ reliance on opioids for pain relief,” Dr. Schroeder concludes.
These findings are preliminary, and there’s still a long way to go before your doctor will be able to prescribe you some tarantula venom for a nagging backache or tooth pain. Still, this is just the latest example of nature hiding untold benefits in the most unexpected of places.
The full study can be found here, published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.