December 2, 2022

Tarantula venom could be used as a powerful pain reliever


Pain relief has come a long way, with many drugs developed to relieve pain and promote comfort. Previous research has shown that the venom can be a powerful pain reliever. Snake venom has been widely studied as a potential source of pain relievers, particularly for chronic and debilitating pain. Now, a team of scientists have found that spider venom, especially from tarantulas, could be used as a powerful pain reliever for various conditions. The research is published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Tarantula spider. Image Credit: Lilreta Ladd / Shutterstock

Researchers at the University of Queensland have found that molecules in tarantula venom could be an alternative to opioid pain relievers for people seeking relief from chronic pain. The venom of the Chinese bird spider, which has a leg span of around eight inches, could potentially provide severe pain relief without side effects and without the risk of addiction.

Opioid addiction is a long-lasting, chronic illness that can lead to serious health and social problems. Opioids are a class of drugs that affect the nervous system, producing feelings of pleasure and pain relief. In 2018 alone, 128 people in the United States die from opioid overdoses every day. Opioid abuse and dependence include prescribed pain relievers, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and heroin.

Millions of people live with chronic and neuropathic pain. Although there is a wide range of treatments for pain relief, many of these medications are considered addictive. This leaves many scientists and researchers around the world in pursuit of potential new therapeutic agents. At the same time, studies provide a better understanding of the functioning of molecules with analgesic activity. The breakthrough discovery of alternative pain relievers can save many lives and improve the quality of life for people with chronic pain.

Although opioids are effective in relieving pain, they have many unwanted side effects, including constipation, nausea, and the risk of addiction.

Spider venom

The Chinese spider is an aggressive species of spider and a type of tarantula that can be found in the rainforests of China and Vietnam. The spider typically feeds on small insects and other creatures, including crickets, mice, and cockroaches.

To determine whether spider venom can act as a pain reliever, the team designed new mini tarantula venom proteins that can help relieve severe, chronic pain without addiction.

“Our study found that a mini-protein in Chinese bird spider tarantula venom, known as Huwentoxin-IV, binds to pain receptors in the body. Three-fold in our design of a drug that incorporates the mini-protein, its receptor and the surrounding membrane of spider venom, we have modified this mini-protein, which increases the potency and specificity of specific pain receptors ”, said Dr Christina Schroeder of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at UQ.

“This ensures that just the right amount of the mini-protein attaches to the receptor and to the cell membrane surrounding the pain receptors,” she added.

In mouse models, the team used the mini proteins for pain relief and showed promising results. They helped reduce the pain.

The study sheds light on other possible ways to relieve pain without using drugs that can lead to addiction and overdose. These molecules derived from tarantula venom could help pharmaceuticals develop potent pain relievers, without the unwanted side effects of opioids. More importantly, trying alternatives can reduce the burden of opioid addiction and overdose, which is a difficult situation in the United States and other countries.

Opioid addiction has become a widespread public health problem in recent years, with governments around the world grappling with drug overdose-related deaths. High-end opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl, and morphine are limited in most countries, but some doctors still prescribe these drugs, especially for patients with debilitating and chronic pain.


Journal reference:

  • Agwa, A., Tran, P., Schroeder, C. et al. (2020). Manipulation of a spider peptide toxin alters its affinity for lipid bilayers and its potency and selectivity for the voltage-gated sodium channel subtype 1.7.