Despite their formidable reputation in the eyes of arachnophobes, spiders contribute to human society in a number of positive ways. On a practical level, they can reduce the population of insects in your home by trapping them for meals. Outdoors, they keep pests from destroying gardens and crops, making sure we don't slip into a period of famine and anarchy. In the lab, scientists have identified a number of chemicals in their venom as possible building blocks for medicines treating everything from pain to muscular dystrophy.
That field of study has led to a promising discovery. In Australia, researchers have isolated one particular compound in a funnel-web spider's venom that can diminish skin cancer cells.
Scientists at QIMR Berghofer and the University of Queensland began studying the Australian funnel-web spider known as Hadronyche infensa after a similar Brazilian arachnid, Acanthoscurria gomesiana, was shown to carry a peptide in its venom called gomesin that has cancer-fighting properties. Identifying a similar peptide in the Australian spider, the researchers demonstrated that the chemical was effective in killing skin cancer cells while leaving healthy skin cells alone.
The peptide was tested on human melanoma cells, eradicating the majority of them. In mice, it also slowed the growth of the melanomas. The peptide was even effective in killing cells found in facial tumors of Tasmanian devils, a marsupial susceptible to an aggressive form of skin cancer transmittable through biting. The results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
These peptides are able to be manipulated, taking on different properties as scientists alter amino acids to create new and potentially more potent versions. It’s hoped that this line of research will lead to the development of treatments for skin cancer in humans.
It's something to think about the next time you consider swatting a spider—though if you happen to reside in Australia and see the funnel-web variety, you might not have a choice. While there are 35 different species of funnel-webs of varying potency, some are so formidable that their fangs can pierce fingernails, and their venom is able to kill a human in less than 15 minutes.
[h/t New Atlas]