Known to his colleagues as ‘The Spiderman’, Professor Glenn King is transforming insect venom into treatments for some of our most debilitating diseases.

From a laboratory at Australia’s University of Queensland, Professor Glenn King and his team are now approaching one of the most exciting frontiers in modern medicine.

By exploring the thousands of molecules that can be found uniquely in insect venom, he hopes to develop revolutionary new treatments for nervous system disorders such as stroke, epilepsy and chronic pain.

A biochemist and structural biologist by training, King has been looking at the potential applications of insect venom for almost thirty years. In the 1990s it became apparent that many of the synthetic insecticides being used in farming were dangerous to humans, and decreasingly effective at targeting insects. A natural alternative was to use products derived from insect venom.

“These venoms are incredibly complicated,” says King. “They have lots of molecules that could potentially help with human disease.”

With over 700 species in their collection – including spiders, scorpions, centipedes and other insects – The University of Queensland has the largest collection of venomous animals in the world.

Each venom contains thousands of different molecules, presenting Professor King’s team with an incredible diversity of opportunities for new treatment.

“I quite like working with spiders,” says King, “But in the end, I just want a good drug that will work safely and effectively.”

The key differentiator of venom is that it can very selectively target ‘ion channels’, the proteins that sit on the outside of cells and enable their communication with the nervous system. In animals, this system of communication ensures that limbs move, hearts beat, and digestive systems continue to work.

Insect venom works by preventing this communication, incapacitating the targeted prey by shutting down the nervous system and these key biological functions. Humans have the same system of ion channels, but in different places and for different purposes.

For this reason, some of these molecules that will kill an insect can instead help with a human disease.

Professor King and his team start their work by finding the specific ion channel that operates in the target human disease. They then screen their library of venom to find the “magic molecule” that targets a particular disease.

The diseases that Professor King and his team are targeting – stroke, epilepsy and chronic pain – are each currently treated with medications that already work by targeting ion channels.

But while these current medicines could be considered crude instruments, Professor King and his team are developing treatments that will be far more precise.

“A lot of drugs we have at the moment do target these ion channels,” says King, “but they’re not very selective, so we get a lot of side effects.”

These radical treatments also present a much-needed alternative to the growing problem of opioid addiction. 

Current opioid medications for chronic pain are crude. They are very effective for treating pain, but they have lots of side effects, gradually lose effectiveness, and are very addictive.

Addiction has now reached epidemic proportions in the United States, and over 17,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses in 2017 alone.

“Our new treatment wouldn’t have the addictive quality or side effects of opioids,” says King.

The potential applications of these new medicines are particularly exciting for the treatment of strokes, which is the second leading cause of death worldwide.

Currently, stroke victims must be medically screened by a doctor before they can be given the medicine to treat it.

This is because there are two types of stroke: Ischemic and Hemorrhagic, and the drug used to treat the former cannot be used for the latter.

The new treatment developed by Professor King and his team works differently. It can be administered immediately by both the first responders in the ambulance, or by the nurses in aged care facilities.

King identifies this as a major drawback of current medicine.

“When you’re having a stroke, you lose about two million nerve cells per minute,” he explains.

“Our drug could be given straight away, stopping this loss almost instantly.”

With the support of government and philanthropic funding, Professor King and his team are currently preparing for a phase one clinical trial.

Despite the promising results of his research, it may be many years before the treatments are commercially available.

Even so, Professor King is hopeful that his team will be able to secure both government and private sector support to ensure their medicines reach the market in a cheap and accessible form for all.

 

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