The lethal sting of the box jellyfish could one day be treated with a zinc compound, new research suggests CREDIT: Robert Hartwick

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The fearsome box jellyfish packs venom that is among the deadliest in

the world, but a new treatment may take the sting out of its powerful

poison, according to a new study.

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The study researchers found that a zinc-based compound prevented death

in mice injected with box-jellyfish venom. The compound — zinc

gluconate, a nutritional supplement — seems to work by preventing

certain ions (charged particles) that keep the heart beating from

leaking out of blood vessels.

If follow-up studies confirm the benefits in larger animals, the compound could one day be used to prevent people from dying of jellyfish stings.

Anecdotal evidence looks promising: A topical version of the compound

was used to reduce the pain and swelling of a jellyfish sting received

by Diana Nyad in August during her attempt to swim the 103 miles (166

kilometers) between Florida and Cuba.

Deadly venom

Snakes, insects, fish and even lizards use venom to defend themselves or take down prey, but the sting of the Australian box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) may be the most deadly: A single creature carries enough venom in its tentacles to kill 60 people.

"These are the most venomous animals in the world based upon fatalities

over the last 30 years," said study author Angel Yanagihara, a

biochemist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Box jellyfish

float in the waters from Australia all the way to Vietnam. The ethereal

creatures can sport 6.5-foot (2-meter)-long, ribbonlike tentacles that

often attach to swimmers or scuba divers and inject venom through

hundreds of thousands of microscopic, harpoonlike barbs, Yanagihara

said. (Gallery: Amazing Photos of Jellyfish)

"All that venom then seeps into the bloodstream. With each beat of your

heart it's being pumped around your circulatory system," she said.

The deadly stings can kill quickly by causing cardiac arrest. Until

now, doctors had no effective treatments to counteract the venom.

Instead, they would treat a cascade of symptoms, such as high or low

blood pressure, and hope for the best, she said.

"It's usually a race against time where the clinician is treating symptoms as they crop up," Yanagihara told LiveScience.

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Leaky cells

Past work had shown the venom contained a chemical that creates

ringlike structures that attach to blood vessels, creating tiny holes in

them and making them leaky; exactly what was leaking out remained a


To find out, Yanagihara and her colleagues drew blood from humans, sheep, rats and mice, and mixed the samples with the jellyfish venom. The scientists then used electrical measurements to track the chemicals seeping out of the cells.

The team found that potassium ions were oozing out of red blood cells

into plasma, the yellowish fluid in which blood cells float. The team

concluded that a steep drop in potassium inside blood cells prevented

heart muscle cells from beating properly. (The heart and other muscles

require a difference in the levels of potassium inside and outside cells

to generate force).

The pores also reminded Yanagihara of similar structures found in

bacteria. By studying scientific experiments dating back as far as the

1880s, she found that scientists used zinc to prevent these bacterial

pores from assembling. The similarity made her wonder whether zinc could

be used to take the deadly sting out of box jellyfish venom.

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To test that theory, the researchers gave two groups of mice venom injections, but one was administered a follow-up dose of zinc gluconate,

a supplement routinely used to boost the zinc levels of premature

babies. While all the mice injected just with jellyfish venom died

within an hour, about half that also received the zinc treatment

survived for the duration of the experiment.

The findings suggest that the zinc works by preventing blood cells from

oozing potassium. If similar results are seen in follow-up studies, the

supplement could be given as a treatment for unlucky people who

encounter the deadly creatures while swimming or surfing.

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