Many people don’t like spiders, and some are straight up arachnophobic, meaning they have an unreasonable fear of spiders. With their many eyes and sometimes furry bodies, they send shivers down the spines of many. However, it’s been long recognized that spiders are important in the ecosystem, as they eat unwanted insects by trapping them in their webs. Many spiders aren’t poisonous — they tend to hide in dark places, away from humans.
Then there’s that other kind of spider: you know, the one that people live in fear of: the Brown Recluse, that can, with a single bite, cause severe injury, pain and necrosis (dying, rotting tissue) where the bite occurred. Many of these people must be treated for their bites with surgery and/or antibiotics.
However, scientists have discovered something very good about spiders: some types produce venom that may actually work as a pain reliever, but without the issues that go along with narcotics, such as addiction, withdrawal, being sold illegally, or respiratory compromise that sometimes occurs with narcotics. It’s puzzling how a venom that could harm someone in certain instances may help them in other situations. How does it work?
Spiders use their venom to stun or kill their prey, sending out paralyzing agents in their bite. Researchers from the University of Queensland were able to identify seven peptides in spider venom that blocked the transmission pathway responsible for sending pain signals from the nerves to the brain. One peptide in particular, from a Borneo orange-fringed tarantula, had the right chemicals, stability, and potency to potentially become pain-killing drug, the researchers said. Fifteen percent of the population has some type of chronic pain, and the opioids used to treat this pain can come with some horrible side effects, including addiction, says Jennifer Smith, a research officer at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience. She does not believe that spider venom would cause addiction.
“We’ve got a massive library of different venoms from different spider species and we’re branching out into other arachnids: scorpions, centipedes and even assassin bugs. We have a plethora of really good venomous animals: You name it we’ve got it, pretty much. Australia is the venom land.”
In fact, Australia is home to tarantulas that are the size of a dinner plate. These spiders may prove useful, but a drawback is that they have to be anesthetized in order to extract venom because they are very aggressive. Not all poisonous spiders are created equal — some that they have tested are not useful. One type of spider that scientists found easy to “milk for venom” — they simply looked at the spider and venom started dripping from its fangs — was not a venom that helped with pain.
Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., a unit of Johnson & Johnson, says the research is promising, but more clinical trials are necessary to verify safety.
“We think this is scientifically promising, but it is too early to put time frames around when this might be in the clinic or a product would be available.”