Funnel-web spider venom can kill you in as little as 15 minutes, so injecting it to prevent a heart attack may seem a little counterintuitive, but according to researchers, it could just save your life.
According to a new study, a molecule in the venom of one of the world’s deadliest spiders, the Fraser Island (K’gari) funnel-web spider, prevents damage caused by a heart attack by stopping the ‘death signal’ and reduces the death of the heart cells following a heart attack.
The groundbreaking discovery was made by Dr Nathan Palpant and Professor Glenn King from The University of Queensland (UQ) and Professor Peter Macdonald from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, with the findings released on Friday.
Researchers said experiments with beating human heart cells led to the development of a drug candidate, produced from the venom molecule. Palpant exposed the heart cells to heart attack stresses and then tested to see if the drug, a protein called Hi1a, improved the cells’ survival rate.
“After a heart attack, blood flow to the heart is reduced, resulting in a lack of oxygen to heart muscle,” Palpant said. “The lack of oxygen causes the cell environment to become acidic, which combine to send a message for heart cells to die.
“Despite decades of research, no one has been able to develop a drug that stops this death signal in heart cells, which is one of the reasons why heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the world.
“The Hi1a protein from spider venom blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the heart, so the death message is blocked, cell death is reduced, and we see improved heart cell survival.”
Macdonald, the senior cardiologist at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and St Vincent’s Hospital, said the incredible result had been decades in the making and could help not only prevent heart attack deaths but also extend the life of donor hearts used for organ transplants.
“This will not only help the hundreds of thousands of people who have a heart attack every year around the world, it could also increase the number and quality of donor hearts, which will give hope to those waiting on the transplant list,” he said.
“The survival of heart cells is vital in heart transplants — treating hearts with Hi1a and reducing cell death will increase how far the heart can be transported and improve the likelihood of a successful transplant.
“Usually, if the donor heart has stopped beating for more than 30 minutes before retrieval, the heart can’t be used – even if we can buy an extra 10 minutes, that could make the difference between someone having a heart and someone missing out. For people who are literally on death’s door, this could be life-changing.”
The discovery builds on earlier work by Professor King, who identified a small protein in the venom of the funnel-web spider that was shown to markedly improve recovery from stroke. He said the Hi1a protein reduces damage to the brain even when administered up to eight hours after stroke.
“It made sense to also test Hi1a on heart cells, because like the brain, the heart is one of the most sensitive organs in the body to the loss of blood flow and lack of oxygen,” he said. “This is particularly important in rural and remote parts of Australia where patients and treating hospitals can be long distances apart – and when every second counts.”
The protein has been tested in human heart cells, and the team is aiming for human clinical trials for both stroke and heart disease within two to three years. There are currently no drugs in clinical use that prevent the damage caused by heart attacks.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.