Spiders have been instrumental for a team of Australian and U.S. researchers to find a new target key in relieving pain from irritable bowel syndrome.

Using spider venom, the team targeted a certain protein involved in transmitting mechanical pain, the type felt by patients suffering symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea.

“Irritable bowel syndrome places a large burden on individuals and on the health system, but there are currently no effective treatments,” said study lead author and University of Adelaide professor Stuart Brierley. “Instead, sufferers are advised to avoid triggers that will cause their symptoms to flare up.”

Co-lead author and University of Queensland professor Glenn King touted spider venom as an effective tool to probe pain signaling in the body.

“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,” explained King.

The team studied 109 spider, scorpion, as well as centipede venoms in the research. They saw the strongest results from Heteroscodra maculata, a tarantula species native to West Africa.

They found that spider venom activated an ion channel or a nerve and muscle protein known as Nav1.1, which was implicated previously in epilepsy. This suggested that the protein also plays a substantial role in pain signaling and transmission.

In addition, Nav1.1 was seen in pain-sensing gut nerves and was underlying pathological levels of abdominal pain, including the one experienced in the case of irritable bowel syndrome.

The findings have led the team to develop molecules to block Nav1.1 and alleviate pain from IBS. They also fuel hope on better understanding its role in chronic pain signaling and developing new treatments.

The findings are detailed in the journal Nature.

IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder that affect 7 to 16 percent of the U.S. population, leading to health care costs amounting from $950 million to $1.35 billion a year due to different treatment options employed to address the condition.

While psychological treatments have long been established to help reduce IBS symptoms in the short term, a recent study highlighted their benefits for the long term, or lasting anywhere from 6 to 12 months after the therapy has concluded.

Photo: Joe Jungmann | Flickr

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