How a poisonous spider could help the 57,000 Australians who have a heart attack every year

Angela PownallThe West Australian
Hadronyche infensa or Fraser Island funnel web spider.
Camera IconHadronyche infensa or Fraser Island funnel web spider. Credit: SAMANTHA NIXON/PR IMAGE

The venom of one of Australia’s deadliest spiders could turn out to be a life saver for heart attack victims after scientists found a molecule in it stops heart cells from dying.

Australian scientists have discovered that the protein Hi1a, contained in the venom of the Fraser Island funnel web spider, prevents damage caused in the aftermath of a heart attack.

A heart attack cuts blood flow to the heart, which results in a lack of oxygen to heart muscle that in turn makes the cell environment acidic and causes heart cells to die.

The venom works by stopping the message telling cells to die, or blocking acid-sensing ion channels in the heart. Every year about 60,000 Australians have a heart attack.

Cardiologist Peter Macdonald, from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, said the use of the spider venom on heart cells in the laboratory improved recovery of heart function by 50 per cent or more.

“That's what got us really excited. We’ve also been looking at other potential molecules and we found that when we added the Hi1a to those other additives, it was an added benefit on top of that again,” Professor Macdonald said.

A funnel web spider’s venom could save the lives of heart attack victims after a molecule in it was found to halt heart cell death.
Camera IconA funnel web spider’s venom could save the lives of heart attack victims after a molecule in it was found to halt heart cell death. Credit: SAMANTHA NIXON/PR IMAGE

“So we knew that this was acting through some complete unique pathway, which really hadn't been targeted before by any of the existing drugs that we use to try to protect the heart.”

He said the protein could particularly help people whose heart stops outside a hospital, especially if they were in rural or remote areas. “When that happens, there’s danger to both the heart and the brain. If this molecule can be put in an ampoule and be given to ambulance officers and administered at the scene, that’s where we see the real potential benefit of this product,” Professor Macdonald said.

The discovery comes after Glenn King from Queensland University found a few years ago that Hi1a markedly improved recovery from a stroke. “We discovered this small protein, Hi1a, amazingly reduces damage to the brain even when it is given up to eight hours after stroke onset,” Professor King said.

Professors Macdonald and King and their teams decided to test it on heart cells, which like the brain, are among the most sensitive organs to loss of blood flow and oxygen.

Brain cells begin to die within minutes of being deprived of oxygen. It is also hoped that the spider venom protein will help preserve donated hearts, therefore making more organs available for transplant.

Professor Macdonald said the protein could be added to the solution used to store hearts being moved for transplant, and to reduce damage to the organ as it is taken from the donor.

The protein has been tested in human heart cells and the scientists now want to begin human clinical trials for stroke and heart disease within three years.

The research, published in medical journal Circulation today, was funded by The University of Queensland, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the National Heart Foundation.

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