Fatal spider venom could protect against post-stroke brain damage

3 September 2018

Read the latest developments on this research - how it could also help repair the damage from heart attacks and preserve donor hearts for transplantation: Repairing hearts with deadly spider venom

When a stroke attacks, blood flow to the brain is suddenly interrupted. Brain cells are deprived of oxygen and immediately begin to die. In fact, up to 1.9 million brain cells succumb every minute. 

Stroke can happen to anyone, and it claims six million lives worldwide each year. A further five million stroke survivors are left with a permanent disability.

Currently, no treatments are available to limit brain damage and disability after stroke, however a world-first discovery by researchers at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience is set to turn this around and provide better outcomes for stroke survivors. 

Secret ingredient found in deadly bite

Professor Glenn King and his research partners at The University of Queensland and Monash University discovered a peptide in the venom of funnel-web spiders that could drastically reduce brain damage following stroke. 

“We believe we have, for the first time, found a way to minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke,” he said.

“We discovered a small protein, Hi1a, that potently blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the brain, which are key drivers of brain damage after stroke. Remarkably, this peptide was found in venom of the lethal Australian funnel-web spider.”

Protection against stroke injury

During preclinical studies, researchers found a single dose of Hi1a administered up to eight hours after stroke protected brain tissue and drastically improved neurological performance.

“We found brain damage was reduced by 80 per cent when Hi1a was administered two hours after stroke. Even when administered eight hours after stroke onset, the amount of brain damage was reduced by about 65 per cent,” Professor King said.

“This is a remarkably long window of opportunity for treatment, which makes it a promising drug lead, as about 60 per cent of stroke patients do not reach an emergency room until at least two hours after onset of stroke. It would be particularly useful for patients in rural and regional areas, who need to travel further to access their nearest hospital.”

If clinical trials are successful, Hi1a could transform treatment and outcomes for stroke patients, as there are currently no stroke treatments on the market that can protect the brain. 

There is only one approved drug treatment for stroke caused by a blood clot, which works to dissipate the clot. Unfortunately this drug treatment also thins the blood, and therefore it is unsuitable for patients whose stroke is caused by a haemorrhage rather than blockage of an artery. 

“If Hi1a also proves to be safe for patients with stroke caused by a brain haemorrhage, it could be administered in the ambulance without the need of a brain scan. This would minimise fatalities and provide much better outcomes for survivors of stroke in terms of minimising brain damage," Professor King said.

This research project involved scientists from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, School of Biomedical Sciences, Queensland Brain Institute, and Centre for Advanced Imaging; and Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute and Department of Pharmacology.

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