Australia Today

Funnel-Web Spiders Could Hold the Cure to Skin Cancer

A chemical from the spider's venom gland also proved effective at treating the facial tumours of Tassie devils.
October 9, 2018, 1:30am
A funnel-web spider. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The funnel web spider, Australia’s deadliest arachnid, could be used to kill melanoma cells.

Researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute observed that a certain chemical compound found in the venom gland of the Darling Downs funnel-web, when synthesised, demonstrated anti-cancer properties. Namely: stopping the spread of skin cancer cells in humans.

The compound, known as a “peptide” and made up of a chain of amino acids, also proved effective at treating the facial tumours of Tasmanian devils, which are threatening the survival of the species. It’s not yet known whether the peptide is from the spider’s venom or its blood, but researchers believe it could have rich potential in developing new cancer treatments, Fairfax reports.

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"When we tested the Australian spider peptide on human melanoma cells in the laboratory, it killed the majority of them," said Maria Ikonomopoulou, a former researcher at QIMR Berghofer and a leader of the study. Maria explained that researchers were drawn to the funnel-web compound because of its similarity to that which is found in a certain species of Brazilian spider, and which was already known to possess anti-cancer properties.

“The Australian funnel-web spider peptide was better at killing melanoma cancer cells and stopping them from spreading than the Brazilian spider peptide,” she said. “[And] Because it specifically kills the cancerous cells in the Tasmanian devil, it can be explored as a potential new drug that could be used to protect the species.”

Adding to the appeal of the peptide was the fact that while it proved extremely potent against cancer cells—both killing them and stopping them from spreading—it showed no toxic effect on healthy skin cells. And when researchers altered two particular amino acids in the peptide chain, the compound became even more effective against Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) cells, New Atlas reports.

DFTD is a highly-contagious cancer, caused by biting, that grows inside the face and mouth of Tasmanian devils. It has proven devastating for the species, and University of Tasmania Professor Gregory Woods told the ABC that there is no known cure. But the newly-discovered effects of funnel-web venom have given researchers some optimism toward combating the disease.

"The Tasmanian devil research is groundbreaking, I don't think anyone has looked at peptides as a potential source for new drugs for the facial tumours before," said Maria.

“There are many years of work ahead, but we hope that this compound could in the future be developed into a new treatment for melanoma and DFTD."