Australian funnel-web spiders are among the most deadly arachnids in the world, and researchers have now discovered they can even be used to kill certain cancer cells.
The QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute study found peptide — extracted from the venom gland of the Darling Downs funnel-web spider and chemically synthesised — has anti-cancer properties that can kill melanoma cancer cells in humans and stop them spreading.
The compound, which also proved highly effective at treating Tasmanian devil facial tumour cells, could form the basis of new cancer treatments.
Queensland lead researcher Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou said the peptide was tested in laboratory experiments against a similar compound from a Brazilian spider, and she was shocked it had such a profound effect.
“It’s very exciting,” she said.
“We found the Australian funnel-web spider peptide was better at killing melanoma cancer cells and stopping them from spreading, and it also didn’t have a toxic effect on healthy skin cells.”
Peptides are chains of amino acids linked to each other by amide bonds, with spider peptides being used in international research to test its antibiotic and anti-cancer properties.
The Darling Downs or Toowoomba funnel web spider can be found in southern Queensland, most commonly on rainforest-covered mountain ranges and along the gullies of rivers and creeks flowing off them.
Dr Ikonomopoulou said there were many years of work ahead, but the early results of the study were promising.
“We hope that this compound could, in the future, be developed into a new treatment for melanoma,” she said.
“These findings prompt us to continue investigating the potential of bioactive compounds derived from venom to treat melanoma, liver disease, obesity and metabolism … in collaboration with the biopharmaceutical industry.”
‘Exciting’ discovery for devil conservation
Dr Ikonomopoulou said the compounds could also be used to treat Tasmanian devil facial tumours.
“Similar to the effect in melanoma cells, we found that the Australia spider peptide killed Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) cells and didn’t affect the healthy cells much,” she said.
“From a conservation perspective, we identified a compound to investigate further and maybe it could lead to a drug against the disease that could be used with different management strategies to save this iconic species,” she said.
DFTD is a contagious transmissible cancer which is spread by biting and causes tumours to grow inside the face or mouth of the affected animal.
University of Tasmania Professor Gregory Woods said there is no known cure for the disease.
“The cancer cells are so powerful that you have to kill every single cancer cell and all attempts so far are about 90 per cent effective but those few cancer cells that survive will re-establish,” he said.
Professor Woods said new medical discoveries about the disease give hope a cure can be found.
“There’s been remarkable progress in the last 10 years considering how little we know about the disease, so any new research that comes up, new ideas and new results all contribute to the greater understanding, not just of the disease but ways in which it can be tackled.”
Researchers at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research are working on a vaccine to prevent the devils from getting the disease.
The funnel-web spider study was published in the journals Scientific Reports and Cell Death Discovery.