Venomous cures

The venom from some of the world's deadliest creatures is being used to develop potentially life-saving medications at UQ.

Imagine a future where people who experience a stroke in a rural location don't have to wait hours, or even days, to receive treatment.

A potential new medication being developed by UQ researchers could help emergency first responders significantly lower the risk of brain damage after a stroke.

Venom is increasingly becoming a tool in drug development and innovation and this breakthrough, developed from the venom of the funnel-web spider, is just one example of how UQ scientists are pushing boundaries to unlock new discoveries.

This month, UQ Alumni News explores the potential new drug being developed by Professor Glenn King and his team, that could revolutionise stroke treatment.

We then talk to Dr Christina Schroeder who is developing medication to tackle chronic pain and contribute to a happier, healthier society.

Using a killer to catch a killer

Professor Glenn King is using the venom of the deadly funnel-web spider to create medications that could lessen the impact of some of the world's deadliest diseases.

The King Lab at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at UQ investigates the use of venom to create pharmaceuticals and antiparasitics.

However, his main focus is on treating the three 'terrors' of neurological disease: stroke, epilepsy, and chronic pain.

Professor Glenn King at work.

Professor Glenn King at work.

The area of stroke research is rapidly progressing and an innovative new drug candidate has been developed by Professor King and his team that could provide an immediate treatment option to prevent brain death after stroke.

The new drug candidate has successfully prevented brain death in rats and with more funding support it could be made ready for human trials.

Stroke is one of Australia’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, with one stroke occurring every 10 minutes.

Worldwide, six million people die each year of stroke, and five million survivors are left with permanent disability.

Professor King said the breakthrough could lead to the development of the first approved drug capable of protecting the brain after stroke.

“There is currently nothing available to protect the brain after stroke and we have developed something that could provide the solution,” he said.

Stroke occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients as a result of either a clot (ischemic stroke) which occurs in about 80 per cent of cases, or a haemorrhage (haemorrhagic stroke).

Professor King said the new medication could potentially be administered by paramedics and would, therefore, decrease the risk of death or permanent disability in stroke survivors.

“The longer it takes treatment to be administered, the more of the brain dies, the worse the outcome is for the patient,” Professor King said.

“The only drug available to treat stroke at the moment is a clot-busting agent called tissue Plasminogen Activator - tPA. However, they only give tPA to less than five per cent of patients because it can also induce haemorrhaging in the brain.

"The advantage of this medication we’ve developed is that while it predominantly treats the fallout of ischemic stroke, it’s still okay to administer to haemorrhagic stroke survivors.

“Therefore, you don't need to undergo triage or scans at the hospital prior to receiving treatment to determine the type of stroke. The first responder can administer drugs to protect the brain straight away.”

The peptide in the spider venom used in the drug (Hi1a) inhibits the signal that triggers cell death and can protect the core brain region most affected by oxygen deprivation.

Professor Glenn King with an Australian funnel-web spider.

Professor Glenn King with an Australian funnel-web spider.

The potential new drug has huge implications for Australians living in remote areas.

"If someone has a stroke in the Torres Strait Islands, the first responder can administer the drug and the patient's brain will be protected during the transport to Brisbane," Professor King said.

“You don't have to wait for that person to arrive at a hospital before you can do anything."

Currently, a CT scan of the patient must be taken prior to treatment for stroke and the only available medication must be given within four and a half hours of the stroke occurring.

The majority of patients do not present to hospital immediately after a stroke.

“More than 50 percent of people take at least two hours to get to the hospital after a stroke,” Professor King said.

“If you're living in outback Australia and you need to get to a stroke unit in Brisbane it's going to take you many hours to get the help you need."

Professor King said the new drug could benefit rural Australians because it prevented brain death for longer periods than previously tested medications.

“Until now, lots of molecules have been tested on rodents within the two-hour period and they've all failed in clinical trials.This is because they’re focusing on the wrong population. It's the people who get to hospital within four to eight hours who are facing significant danger and need the most help.

"So we tested our molecule at two hours, four hours and eight hours after the stroke and we got remarkable results for neuroprotection.

“This drug has been shown to be effective even up to eight hours after stroke.”

The team is now seeking support for clinical trials to continue to develop what they hope will be a drug that significantly improves the outcomes of stroke survivors.

“It would not take very much work to get this drug ready for clinical trials.

“We all know someone who has been affected by stroke and many of us have lost people as a result of this debilitating disease.

“We have something right now, a drug that we could use to treat stroke, to prevent brain death, to save lives.

“With very little work and just a bit of support we could potentially have something which could help a lot of people right here in Australia.”

Building better medicine

Dr Christina Schroeder’s work involves recreating and manipulating the compounds in venom to make better medicine.

She and her team work with cells and ion channels, passageways through membranes that allow cells to send electrical signals through the body, such as the nerve impulses felt during pain.

Once a compound is identified by Professor Glenn King’s lab, Dr Schroeder and her team can synthesise it to recreate it chemically to develop improved pain medication.

Dr Christina Schroeder.

Dr Christina Schroeder.

“A quarter of our population live in continuous and unrelenting pain.

"Despite this, there are currently few effective treatment options for chronic pain,” Dr Schroeder said.

“The burden of chronic pain on our health care system is more than that of cancer, diabetes and heart disease combined.”

Her work looks at venom peptides, a component of the venom, with the aim of developing new pain management drugs that will have fewer negative side effects and a lower rate of addiction than modern drugs such as morphine.

“Holistically, once the compound is identified, we extract it, make changes to it structurally and come up with something that works on the target."

“However, where it becomes tricky is that we only want it to work on the channels we’ve identified.

"For peptides to be effective they need to work on only one ion channel otherwise you’re going to get unwanted side effects."

Dr Schroeder said research can be accelerated by collaboration with doctors, patients, and other researchers.

“Sometimes, as researchers, it’s easy to live in an academic bubble, where we forget the impact that the work we’re having on the community – that’s why collaboration between clinicians and researchers is so important,” she said.

“Even more valuable than this can be interaction with patients because we cannot forget the human face of the treatments we are creating – the people we want to help and the reason we strive for these breakthroughs.”

The work they do is long and tedious but the potential to help people through the outcomes make it worthwhile.

“It has become obvious that there is no one component that is going to be the magic bullet.

“However, in our quest for this, we’re finding out a lot about how venom peptides work.

“My work is really looking at learning more about ion channels and the application of predominantly tarantula venom peptides, in pain relief medication.”

She likes to maintain a good sense of humour about her work.

“I like to joke sometimes that these venomous creatures are helping us to treat pain as a way of redeeming themselves for causing pain.”

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All images supplied by IMB and Pexels.