Gross Irish Spider Could Cure Cancer

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The false black widow spider known as the Steatoda nobilis. Photo: Michel Dugon, NUI Galway.

By Nicole Buckler

Here in Ireland we don’t have to live with disgusting godawful creatures like lethally-venomous spiders. Irish people shudder disturbingly when we see images from around the world of spiders doing horrible things, like falling from the sky in demonic groups, or covering entire forests with satanic web-like structures. No, we are safe from such insults to our sense of wellbeing.

But now it seems we are going to have a to learn to make peace with a spider known as the Steatoda nobilis. Or to you and me, the false black widow spider.

This spider isn’t originally a native Irish arachnid. But it is now an established invasive species, first being recognised as an immigrant in 1997. It has set up shop and now has its own Irish passport. I hope our government plans to tax it within an inch of its life.

This little spider has been getting a lot of press lately. It has been going around biting Brits and the Irish more frequently in the past few years, causing increasingly worse reactions in victims. This has led to social media pictures full of bitten humans legs so puss-filled they might in fact turn us off social media forever. We really don’t like this new threat to our spider-sparse world. It’s creepy, sinister, and anti-happy.

But science boffins are making this blood-thirsty immigrant pay its way. Yes, unlike U2 and their tax-avoiding foreign accounts, it will be made to pay taxes. How? The venom from the false black widow spider is being researched for the first time at NUI Galway for its therapeutic potential for anti-cancer properties.

The venom will be tested on different lines of human cancerous cells. This is the first time that an Irish creepy-crawly has been investigated for its potent bio-activity. And, it is the first time that venom from this particular spider has been investigated.

Dr Michel Dugon is an Irish Research Council Fellow in Botany and Zoology at the School of Natural Sciences in NUI Galway. He is carrying out the research on the rapid evolution of spider venom and its potential therapeutic applications. To date less than 100 species worldwide have been investigated for the therapeutic potential of their venom.

In his research Dr Dugon is using the false black widow spider as a model to determine:

  • If there is some truth regarding the potency of their venom.
  • If the venom is in fact different between populations, which would explain why this spider has such a bad reputation in Ireland and the UK but not in its native range in Madeira and the Canary Islands.
  • If the venom has potential anticancer properties. Initial tests have shown that the venom from this spider causes significant cell death when diluted with one part venom to one million part water. The venom will now be tested on different lines of human cancerous cells.

In the case of spiders, virtually all of the 40,000 species known worldwide possess a pair of fangs and venom glands used to kill prey and deter predators. Venom is a complex cocktail containing hundreds of bioactive components, including potent toxins. Spider neurotoxins can shut down the central nervous system of their prey, leading to respiratory or cardiac arrest.

Says Dr Dugon. “These toxins, once rearranged, can become powerful tools for the treatment of diseases. It is already asserted that each species of spider possesses its own cocktail of toxins, giving unique properties to its venom. Worldwide, this represents at least 40,000 toxic blends that might hold treatments for diseases crippling millions of people. What if venom was not just species-specific but population-specific? Or maybe even individual-specific, just like our fingerprints? That would mean millions of bioactive combinations are there to be explored and a huge biodiverse pharmacy may be waiting to be harvested.

“We thought that the venom from a Steatoda nobilis would be quite benign and rather unlikely to cause mass cell death in a biological assessment on healthy or cancerous cell lines, especially once the venom is diluted and sprayed on cells. To our great surprise, the venom from this spider causes significant cell death even when diluted with one part venom to one million part water. We are just amazed that a solution containing 0.0001% of crude venom still manages to cause serial death in our cell lines. What causes it? We hope to find out soon.”

So this little disgusting crawly beast could be the cure for cancer. From “ew” to “phew” makes the existence of this spider borderline okay. Just don’t bite us, spider, okay?

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