Could Spider Venom Relieve Chronic Pain?
When you hear "spider bite," the first thing you probably think of is pain or incessant itching. You may even picture paralysis, which is what some of the most venomous spiders can cause. However, new research has determined that spider venom could contain some promising compounds capable of relieving even the most stubborn pain.
What we're talking about here are chronic and widespread pain disorders - things that reportedly affect more than 1.5 billion people. That means about one out of every five people suffer from persistent pain that cannot be explained by acute sensations triggered by injury.
Fibromyalgia is a big one, with experts still scratching their heads as to how and why this disorder causes a widespread and incessant pain sensation that often grows worse as a victim ages. Arthritis is also a common one - a neuropathic pain disorder that is sparked by physical degradation of the joints and their associated nerves.
There are other conditions too, all of which have two things in common: doctors don't fully understand them, and treatments often don't help.
And yet, all the same, the global market for managing persistent pain was estimated to be worth about $60 billion (USD) this year. The US healthcare system alone also spends 10 times that value on powerful, but often ineffective painkillers and research. With so much money being dumped into it, victims would not be wrong to hope for a cheaper and better means of pain management.
Enter spider venom. A lot of new research has focused around arachnids and their powerful bites, as tens-of-thousands of spider species boast unique venoms containing hundreds, or even thousands of protein molecules. The proteins in turn could have major medicinal value that has yet to be explored. (Scroll to read on...)
"A conservative estimate indicates that there are nine million spider-venom peptides, and only 0.01 percent of this vast pharmacological landscape has been explored so far," researcher Julie Kaae Klint said in a recent statement.
The challenge, she said, was to find a method that could sift through these untapped resources, looking for ones that could help block the sensation of pain.
According to a study recently published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, that's exactly what Klint and her colleagues have pulled off, building a system that has so far screened 206 species of spiders. Even in this small group, 40 percent of their venoms contained at least one of seven compounds that can block human Nav1.7 channels.
"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," explained research lead Glenn King from the University of Queensland.
Klint adds that this could give new hope to pain sufferers. After all, farming spiders for their venom could be an effective an inexpensive way to make new treatments widely available.
"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," she said.
Still, it's important to note that identifying an available and natural source of prime compounds is just the beginning. Devising ways to isolate the compounds and use them to craft new - and safe - painkillers is another challenge entirely.
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