The venom of one of the world's most dangerous spiders can protect brain cells after a stroke, a team of Australian researchers has found.
Stroke, which involves an interruption of the blood supply to the brain causing the destruction of tissue in the affected area, is the second-leading cause of death worldwide and a major cause of long-term disability.
Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists told This Way Up's Simon Morton that when a stroke occurs nerve cells are damaged when they are deprived of oxygen, and this leads to an accumulation of acid that can't be flushed away.
This increased acidity triggers pores (acid sensing ion channels or ASICs) sitting in the nerve cell membrane to open, flooding cells with sodium and water that causes them to swell and burst. So if you can stop the ASICs responding in this way, it could buy stroke patients extra time for treatment before further damage occurs.
Now in a study published in the journal PNAS, University of Queensland researcher Glenn King and his colleagues have found that the venom of the infamous funnel web spider contains a protein called Hi1a that can block the main ASIC pore, and shows promising results in studies on rats and on cultured cells in the lab.
"Encouraging as this sounds, commentators are taking a cautionary stance", Dr Smith said. "They point out that rats are not humans and the current results explore only very short time intervals following the stroke".
The researchers will now see if these beneficial effects are maintained and translate into superior recovery and neurological function over a longer time span.