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Tarantula Venom Tapped for New Kind of Painkiller

The Peruvian green velvet tarantula, whose venom shows promise as an inhibitor of the reception and transmission of pain. Image credit: Tarantuland via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Most of us fear venomous creatures like spiders and scorpions for good reason—venom delivered straight from the source can cause life-threatening reactions and death. However, within venoms themselves are potentially therapeutic peptides that have been shown to block some pain receptors in mice and humans. This new class of painkillers could be the first real breakthrough in treating drug-resistant chronic pain without addictive side effects.

New research recently presented at the Biophysical Society’s 60th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles revealed the mode of action of the venom derived from the Peruvian green velvet tarantula, Thrixopelma pruriens, which is considered especially potent to inhibit the reception and transmission of pain through voltage-gated sodium channels, such as NaV 1.7, 1.8, and 1.9.

The tarantula venom, called Pro-Tx II, was first identified at Yale in 2014, after culling 100 other spider venoms, for its potential in dulling pain-sensing neurons. “We set out to understand if the cell membrane itself is important in the peptides’ mode of action,” Sonia Troeira Henriques, senior research officer at the University of Queensland Institute for Molecular Bioscience, tells mental_floss.

Using lab-cultivated neuroblastoma cells, which were modified to express the NaV 1.7 pain receptor, researchers obtained a 3D view of the peptides’ structure under nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) so they could closely observe how and if the toxin was binding to the cell membrane.

“What we found is that the cell membranes of neuronal cells attract the peptides to a close vicinity of pain target receptors and orient the peptides with the right position to bind to the target,” Henriques says. In other words, the peptides have the perfect chemical composition to bind to the phospholipid layer of the cell. Prior research had suggested that the peptides’ ability to bind to the lipid membrane might be responsible for inhibiting the NaV 1.7 pain receptor. “But we are the first one showing that correlation,” she says.

The NaV 1.7 pain channel is one of several subtypes in cell membranes responsible for controlling the ions that come and go from the cell. NaV 1.7 is expressed only in neuronal cells, but, says Henriques, “there are other channels of the same family expressed in the cardiac muscles. Because they are so similar we have to make sure the peptide we are working with is selective to the pain target and not the cardiac muscles, because if you inhibit cardiac muscles, the person won’t survive.”

If it makes it into therapeutic form, Pro-Tx II won’t be the first commercially viable toxin-derived pain reliever; an existing drug called Prialt, designed from the venom of marine snails, is often used as a last resort when morphine doesn’t stop chronic pain. As of yet, making any venom-based painkillers available in a pill form may take a while to develop, because currently these peptide molecules don’t cross the blood-brain barrier, necessitating an injection to the spine.

As to the effectiveness of pain relief provided by the venom-based painkillers, Henriques says, “Some studies have compared the pain behavior of those mice when they are injected with this toxin versus regular painkillers and they are comparable in terms of efficiency and in the way they relieve pain.”

The next stage of research is to try to improve the mode of action so that more pain-blocking peptides can be attracted to a given pain receptor, for greater effectiveness.

Henriques remains hopeful. “What keeps me going, and what I like in this work, is that every single piece of knowledge we bring to this field will be converted into a product that will improve someone else’s life.”

Editor's note: This post has been updated to clarify the pain receptor focused on in the study. It is NaV 1.7, not NaV 1.8.

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Courtesy of The National Aviary
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Animals
Watch This Live Stream to See Two Rare Penguin Chicks Hatch From Their Eggs
Courtesy of The National Aviary
Courtesy of The National Aviary

Bringing an African penguin chick into the world is an involved process, with both penguin parents taking turns incubating the egg. Now, over a month since they were laid, two penguin eggs at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are ready to hatch. As Gizmodo reports, the baby birds will make their grand debut live for the world to see on the zoo's website.

The live stream follows couple Sidney and Bette in their nest, waiting for their young to emerge. The first egg was laid November 7 and is expected to hatch between December 14 and 18. The second, laid November 11, should hatch between December 18 and 22.

"We are thrilled to give the public this inside view of the arrival of these rare chicks," National Aviary executive director Cheryl Tracy said in a statement. "This is an important opportunity to raise awareness of a critically endangered species that is in rapid decline in the wild, and to learn about the work that the National Aviary is doing to care for and propagate African penguins."

African penguins are endangered, with less than 25,000 pairs left in the wild today. The National Aviary, the only independent indoor nonprofit aviary in the U.S., works to conserve threatened populations and raise awareness of them with bird breeding programs and educational campaigns.

After Sidney and Bette's new chicks are born, they will care for them in the nest for their first three weeks of life. The two penguins are parenting pros at this point: The monogamous couple has already hatched and raised three sets of chicks together.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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