Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) recently published an article that provided the possibility of unknown hope to a group of millions. Australian researchers from the University of Queensland were knee-deep in investigating the venom of the Australian funnel web spider Hadonyche infensa when they came across a small molecule with large neuroprotective capabilities and even larger therapeutic implications.
As the second leading cause of death worldwide, stroke kills six million people every year and leaves another five million with permanent disability. Despite its prevalence, there is not a single drug available to prevent stroke-induced neuronal injury.
Senior Meghan McHale, who has personally experienced stroke within her own family, spoke to the struggle of recovery.
“You can do all this rehab, and some people are lucky enough to recover. But many aren’t. There just really aren’t any medications that are widespread to help all types of strokes,” McHale said.
Australian researchers suggest that there may finally be an opportunity to secure a brighter and more promising future for stroke survivors.
Although found within deadly venom, capable of killing a human within just fifteen minutes of a bite, the protein (Hi1a) is harmless when isolated. And not only is Hi1a harmless once separated from the fangs of this Australian killer, but the protein has actually been shown to reduce brain damage in rats following a stroke.
Strokes occur when blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, starving the region of oxygen. The brain must excessively burn fuel (in the form of glucose), producing acid and activating acid-sensing ion channels (ASIC1a). These channels are the primary mediators of stroke-induced neuronal damage.
Hi1a has been shown to block ASIC1a by binding the channel and inhibiting its activation, reducing neuronal death. Thus, this protein protects brain regions that are usually considered unrecoverable after a stroke.
Associate Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Jason Meyers commented on the urgency of the matter discussed by the PNAS paper.
“This story highlights for me two really important things,” Myers said. “First, the importance of basic research as a pathway to clinical research. Second, the importance of biodiversity and studying broadly within the natural world.”
Senior Taylor Cronk, whose family has also been affected by stroke, further emphasized the importance of the potential of this research.
“I feel like the biggest concern for people who suffer from a stroke is that they will never be the same afterwards,” Cronk said. “If there is a drug that can help people get back some of their functioning, that would increase the quality of life for so many people who survive strokes.”
Meyer spoke further to the significance of such research among victims of stroke.
“There looks to be tremendous potential for dramatic improvement in clinical outcomes of stroke patients [which came] out of a lab sequencing all of the RNAs in the spider’s venom gland and [in] noticing some interesting variants,” Meyers said. “[This] is exactly the type of research that is currently on the chopping block in a push to fund the most clinically relevant research.”