Engineered spider poison may be the key to future anti-venoms

A venom protein from the brown recluse spider may provide safer future anti-venomsMilking a spider.

Whatever comes to mind when you hear that, 'easy to do' is probably not high on the list. Personally, my thoughts land somewhere between "That must be really hard" and "Augh!" However, in order to provide critical anti-venoms to save bite victims from the effects of poison, it has always been necessary to milk venom from spiders and other venomous animals, which is a very difficult and dangerous job.

That is, until now.

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A new study, recently published in the journal Vaccine, describes what may be the key to a new breed of anti-venom vaccines. Researchers at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil have engineered a protein composed of elements of the toxin of the Reaper, or brown spider — common in many parts of the world and responsible for thousands of injuries to humans every year.

"In Brazil we see thousands of cases of people being bitten by Loxosceles spiders, and the bites can have very serious side-effects," said study co-author Dr. Chávez-Olortegui, in a news release. "Existing anti-venoms are made of the pure toxins and can be harmful to people who take them. We wanted to develop a new way of protecting people from the effects of these spider bites, without having to suffer from side-effects."

What's new about this approach? Well, in the past, to generate the anti-venom antibodies needed to counteract the poison, the approach has been to administer the venom to animals, who's bodies then create the antibodies for us to harvest. There are a variety of problems with this approach: one is that it requires the animals to suffer the effects of the toxin and another is that the anti-venom itself is still based on a pure toxin and can still be harmful to the people who take it, even as it helps their bodies neutralize the poison.

The engineered protein, actually created from three different proteins found in the venom of the Loxosceles intermedia spider, can be created in the lab without the need to milk venom from the spiders. Better than that, although it must still be administered to animals — in the case of this study, rabbits — so they can create the antibodies, the animals suffer no ill effects from the engineered substance. And their immune systems still created antibodies as though they'd been exposed to the entire toxin.

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The bite of the brown spider causes necrosis around the wound — as the poison kills the surrounding skin cells, which can result in a massive infection — and the poison can lead to other complications like kidney failure and hemorrhaging. In Brazil, where the study was conducted, this one genus of spider alone is responsible for up to 7000 injuries to people a year. A safer, more efficient way to produce anti-venom vaccines would be a welcome, life-saving, change.

(Image credit: Kmes Gerholdt/Photolibrary/Getty Images)

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