NUI Galway Study on Spider Venom For Potential Anti-Cancer Properties

The false black widow spider known as the Steatoda nobilis.
Apr 05 2016 Posted: 09:45 IST

The venom from a false black widow spider known as the Steatoda nobilis is being researched for the first time at NUI Galway for its therapeutic potential for anti-cancer properties

An NUI Galway scientist has begun research on venom variations from the false black widow spider and its therapeutic potential for anti-cancer properties. The venom will be tested on different lines of human cancerous cells. This is the first time that an Irish bug is being investigated for its potent bio-activity and the first time that venom from this particular spider is been investigated.

Dr Michel Dugon, an Irish Research Council Fellow in Botany and an Adjunct Lecturer in Zoology at the School of Natural Sciences in NUI Galway, is carrying out the research on the rapid evolution of spider venom and its potential therapeutic applications. To date less than 100 species worldwide have been investigated for the therapeutic potential of their venom.

Mr Dugon will use the venom from a local invasive spider, the false black widow, known as the Steatoda nobilis, which arrived in Ireland in 1997 and is well known in the British Isles as ‘the most venomous spider in the UK’. There is evidence of people having fairly serious effects from the bite of this spider, which result in symptoms similar to a wasp or bee sting, but until now the venom has never been studied.

In his research Dr Dugon is using the false black widow spider as a model to determine:

  • If there is some truth regarding the potency ot their venom.
  • If the venom is in fact different between populations, which would explain why this spider has such a bad reputation in Ireland and the UK but not in its native range in Madeira and the Canary Islands.
  • If the venom has potential anticancer properties. Initial tests have shown that the venom from this spider causes significant cell death when diluted with one part venom to one million part water. The venom will now be tested on different lines of human cancerous cells.

In the case of spiders, virtually all of the 40,000 species known worldwide possess a pair of fangs and venom glands used to kill prey and deter predators. Venom is a complex cocktail containing hundreds of bioactive components, including potent toxins. Spider neurotoxins can shut down the central nervous system of their prey, leading to respiratory or cardiac arrest.

Commenting on the new study, Dr Michel Dugon said: “These toxins, once rearranged, can become powerful tools for the treatment of diseases. It is already asserted that each species of spider possesses its own cocktail of toxins, giving unique properties to its venom. Worldwide, this represents at least 40,000 toxic blends that might hold treatments for diseases crippling millions of people. What if venom was not just species-specific but population-specific? Or maybe even individual-specific, just like our fingerprints? That would mean millions of bioactive combinations are there to be explored and a huge biodiverse pharmacy may be waiting to be harvested.”

Dr Dugon added, “We thought that the venom from a Steatoda nobilis would be quite benign and rather unlikely to cause mass cell death in a biological assessment on healthy or cancerous cell lines, especially once the venom is diluted and sprayed on cells. To our great surprise, the venom from this spider causes significant cell death even when diluted with one part venom to one million part water. We are just amazed that a solution containing 0.0001% of crude venom still manages to cause serial death in our cell lines. What causes it? We hope to find out soon.”

Michel Dugon has opened the ‘Venom Systems and Proteomics Lab’ in the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway with the aim of identifying venomous animals that are a potential source of novel bioactive compounds. He currently works in collaboration with Dr Ronan Sulpice (Botany), Dr Peter Crowley (Chemistry), the team of Professor Afshin Samali (Biochemistry) and the team of Professor Lokesh Joshi (VP of Research) at NUI Galway.


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