Spider Venom May Be Key to New Painkillers

In lab-dish tests, seven compounds obtained from venom blocked a protein crucial for transmitting the sensation of pain to the human brain.

Spider venom may contain a long-sought secret ingredient for an effective, long-term painkiller, researchers said Wednesday.

In lab-dish tests, seven compounds obtained from venom blocked a protein crucial for transmitting the sensation of pain to the human brain.

"The hunt for a medicine based on just one of these compounds, which would open up a new class of potent painkillers, is now a step closer," said a statement issued with the study published by the British Journal of Pharmacology.

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The poison arachnids use to kill their prey contains molecules that can impair proteins transporting signals between the nerves and the brain.

If it could be targeted and controlled, this "off switch" may be the solution for millions of chronic pain sufferers.

One protein in particular, dubbed Nav1.7, is believed to be the "channel" essential for transmitting pain signals in humans.

"Previous research shows indifference to pain among people who lack Nav1.7 channels due to a naturally-occurring genetic mutation -- so blocking these channels has the potential of turning off pain in people with normal pain pathways," said study leader Glenn King from the University of Queensland, Australia.

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The team screened venom from 206 spider species, and found seven compounds that could block human Nav1.7 channels in lab tests.

Of the seven, one was particularly potent "and also had a chemical structure that suggested it would have high levels of chemical, thermal and biological stability, which would be essential for administering a new medicine," said the statement from publishing house Wiley.

"Together, these properties make it particularly exciting as a potential painkiller."

Existing drugs are limited in their efficacy and have dose-limiting side effects.

The study said chronic pain affected some 15 percent of the adult population, with an economic cost to the United States alone of about $600 billion (540 billion euros) per year.

There are about 45,000 species of spider in the world, carrying around a potential nine million-plus peptides of which only about 0.01 percent have been explored by drug researchers.

Insects and other creepy crawlies may be tiny, but their lineages are mighty, finds a new study that determined the common ancestor of mites and insects existed about 570 million years ago. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, presents an evolutionary timeline that settles many longstanding uncertainties about insects and related species. It found that true insects first emerged about 479 million years ago, long before dinosaurs first walked the Earth. Co-author Karl Kjer, a Rutgers entomologist, explained that mites are arthropods, a group that's distantly related to insects. Spiders and crustaceans are also arthropods.

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Spiders such as the huntsman spider can, like mites, trace their lineages back to about 570 million years ago, according to the new study. The researchers believe that the common ancestor of mites, spiders and insects was a water-dweller.

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Millipedes, such as the one shown here, as well as centipedes are known as myriapods. The most recent common ancestor of myriapods and crustaceans lived about 550 million years ago. Again, this "mother of many bugs" would have been a marine dweller. Kjer explained, "You can't really expect anything to live on land without plants, and plants and insects colonized land at about the same time, around 480 million years ago. So any date before that is a sea creature." Moving forward in time, the most common ancestor of millipedes and centipedes existed a little over 400 million years ago. The leggy body plan has proven to be extremely successful.

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"This is an early insect that evolved before insects had wings," Kjer said. Its ancestry goes back about 420 million years. The common ancestor of silverfish living today first emerged about 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs and the earliest mammals likely would have then seen silverfish very similar to the ones that are alive now.

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Dragonflies and damselflies have family histories that go back about 406 million years. Kjer said that such insects looked differently then, however. "For example," he said, "they had visible antennae." Their distant ancestors were among the first animals on earth to fly.

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"Parasitic lice are interesting, because they probably needed either feathers or fur," Kjer said. As a result, they are the relative newbies to this list. Nonetheless, the researchers believe it is possible that ancestors of today's lice were around 120 million years ago, possibly living off of dinosaurs and other creatures then.

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Crickets, katydids and grasshoppers had a common ancestor that lived just over 200 million years ago, and a stem lineage that goes back even further to 248 million years ago. A trivia question might be: Which came first, these insects or grass? The insects predate the grass that they now often thrive in.

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Dinosaur Era fossils sometimes include what researchers call "roachoids," or wing impressions that were made by ancestors to today's roaches, mantids (like the praying mantis) and termites. "Some cockroaches are actually more closely related to termites than they are to other cockroaches," Kjer said, explaining that this makes tracing back their lineages somewhat confusing. He and his colleagues determined that the stem lineage goes back about 230 million years, while the earliest actual cockroach first emerged around 170 million years ago.

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Termites and cockroaches have a tightly interwoven family history. Termites similar to the ones we know today were around 138 million years ago. Now we often think of termites as pests, but they are good eats for many different animals, which back in the day would have included our primate ancestors.

Flies like houseflies that often buzz around homes belong to the order Diptera, which has a family tree that goes back 243 million years ago. The most recent common ancestor for modern flies lived about 158 million years ago, according to the study. There is little doubt that the earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, had to contend with pesky flies and all of the other insects mentioned on this list. All of these organisms are extremely hardy. The researchers determined that, in the history of our planet, there has only been one mass extinction event that had much impact on insects. It occurred 252 million years ago (the Permian mass extinction), and even it set the stage for the emergence of flies, cockroaches, termites and numerous other creepy crawlies.

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