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Creepy crawlers to the rescue

Posted on September 9, 2021 | Comments

A newly discovered gnat. A venomous caterpillar. A poisonous spider. Strangely enough, these three creepy crawlers are playing a starring role with scientists “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” That’s right, the popular 60’s Star Trek theme duly describes how 60 years later medical science is using the peculiar resources of these otherwise off-putting insects to potentially save lives.

Starting with the newly discovered fungus gnat species in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the bioluminescent blue light it emits has been found to illuminate H.I.V. and even kill cancer cells.  A protein called luciferin which is often found in marine animals, mushrooms, insects and algae is the source of bioluminescence which comes in a range of greens, reds and blues. Inspired by the systems nature can create, researchers strive to translate them into effective medical technology such as developing a new cancer-destroying tool that positions the gnat’s blue light inside cancer cells.

Next up: The not so charming hungry caterpillar. Unlike the friendly children’s book, the toxic venom of an extremely poisonous Australian caterpillar routinely crawling around the Queensland’s Toohey Forest Park  has shown promise for use in medicine, biotechnology and scientific tools. Dr. Andrew Walker at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience has been studying the venom of this particular caterpillar since 2017. Thankfully someone took an interest because his studies indicate that the caterpillar’s venom contains high potency bioactive peptides that can kill nematode parasites which are harmful to livestock and also destroy disease-causing pathogens in humans.

Finally, it looks like another type of protein has been discovered in the Fraser Island funnel web spider which can prevent damage from heart attacks. The funnel-web spider’s venom, Hi1a (not a typo), is capable of blocking so-called death signals sent to cells after cardiac arrest which reduces cell death and improves heart cell survival.

How they discover these connections is beyond me. I’m just glad they do since preventative drugs for heart attack damage does not yet exist. Scientists envision a future where first responders will be able to administer Hi1a for immediate cardiac arrest treatment, a real medical game-changer when every minute counts especially in rural and remote areas. Hi1a could also benefit heart transplant success as well as extend the life of donor hearts to increase donor heart transport distances.

It is hard to imagine that the very things that could make us feel fearful about some insects can also become highly favorable sources for modern-day medical breakthroughs. If this is what researchers are working on now, imagine where scientists will boldly go in the next 60 years?

Originally published in the Orange County Register September 9, 2021

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