Tarantula venom can help open treatments to stop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) pain, according to scientists from Australia and the US. The international team of scientists says the venom activates the protein NaV1.1, which transmits pain to the human body so targeting it can finally end the burden of one in five Australians suffering from IBS.

An analysis reveals that the protein is also present in the gut’s pain-sensing nerves, which is involved with pain felt by patients with IBS. The team is currently creating molecules that can block NaV1.1. The findings have been published on June 7 in the journal Nature.

The study involved analyzing a total of 109 spider, scorpion, and centipede venoms. The researchers found that the venom that produced the strongest result came from a tarantula called Heteroscodra maculata, a species native to West Africa.

tarantula venom

Heteroscodra maculata. Credit: Greg Hume

IBS symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. The disease does not have a cure as of now.

“Irritable bowel syndrome places a large burden on individuals and on the health system, but there are currently no effective treatments. Instead, sufferers are advised to avoid triggers that will cause their symptoms to flare up,” adds the study’s co-leader Stuart Brierley, who is an associate professor and is currently the head of the University of Adelaide’s Visceral Pain Group based at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

Co-leader Glenn King, a professor at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience Center for Pain Research, says that this discovery proves that studying spider venom can shed more light about the pain signalling in the human body.  Other collaborators include researchers from the University of California San Francisco and Johns Hopkins University.

“Spiders make toxins to kill prey and defend themselves against predators, and the most effective way to defend against a predator is to make them feel excruciating pain,” says King. “Spider venom should, therefore, be full of molecules that stimulate the pain-sensing nerves in our body, allowing us to discover new pain pathways by examining which nerves are activated when exposed to spider toxins.”