Spider-man harnessing nature

Venomous animals are normally associated with pain, however they’re now showing promise in the treatment of conditions like chronic inflammation, ischemic (low oxygen) tissue damage, traumatic nerve injury and multiple sclerosis.

Dr Lachlan Rash, Senior Lecturer at the UQ School of Biomedical Sciences (SBMS), started using venoms for drug development during his Honours at Melbourne’s Monash University over 20 years ago.

“I once played with spiders to avoid studying in my final year of high school,” Dr Rash laughs.

"I used to catch flies and feed them to black house spiders, when I should have been studying for my year 12 exams.

“Who would have thought five years later I’d be studying their venom, and then make it my career,” he says.

As part of his PhD, Dr Rash worked on several other spider venoms and discovered mouse spiders (Missulena spp.) have a similar neurotoxic venom to funnel web spiders, which means their bites can be treated with funnel web spider anti-venom.

An opportunity to travel to Antibes, France, saw Dr Rash complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology. “It was a very exciting time for me,” he recalls.

“I started studying tarantula venom peptides that block ion channels, which are protein molecules that create pathways for charged ions to cross cell membranes, and allow proper cell function, particularly nerve and muscle cells.

“My goal was to discover molecules that inhibit acid-sensing ion channels and other channels involved in pain and neurodegeneration in the body,” Dr Rash says.

When he returned to Australia, Dr Rash joined UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), and then established the Ion Channel Pharmacology lab at SBMS where he continues to research tarantula venoms.

“Our recent studies, in collaboration with Monash University, show that potent and selective venom peptide inhibitors of acid-sensing ion channels provides promising brain protection after a stroke in an animal model,” Dr Rash says.

“We are now working to improve these peptides and test their potential to treat other inflammatory and ischemic diseases.”

Working with spiders has made Dr Rash quite fond of the creatures.

"We keep tarantulas in the lab for many years so we can milk their venom, and I do get quite attached to them.

“Believe it or not, each spider has its own personality. One of my favourites, Queen Beatrix, is very feisty and quick to show her one centimetre-long fangs, others are quieter and more reserved.” 

This story is featured in the Summer 2019 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.