Life Science Antidote discovered for lethal box jellyfish venom

Antidote discovered for lethal box jellyfish venom

box jellyfish antivenom
Box jellyfish stings are hugely painful, and can even be lethal. Photo: Getty
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The paralysing sting may have been taken out of one of the Earth’s most venomous creatures, with Australian researchers claiming to have found a new antidote to box jellyfish poison.

The potentially fatal box jellyfish populate waters across the tropical Top End, particularly during “stinger season”, from October to May.

The ocean-dwellers can have up to 60 tentacles and grow to three metres in length, and have been known to cause excruciating, burning pain – as one recent victim described it, “like being bitten and electrocuted at the same time”.

If the dose of venom was large enough, a box jellyfish sting could cause cardiac arrest or death.

Now, Sydney University researchers studying how box jellyfish venom causes pain have claimed to have cracked upon a medicine that would block the symptoms.

“Box jellyfish venom hurts really, really, really badly, and we didn’t understand how it works, so we started from that angle, of trying to figure out how the pain works,” Associate Professor Greg Neely told the ABC.

“Then, while we were studying it, we realised, ‘oh this pathway’s totally blockable with drugs’, so we just tested it and it worked.”

While box jellyfish antivenom already exists and is available in some Northern Territory and Queensland hospitals and clinics, this study has been lauded as “the first molecular dissection of how this type of venom works, and possibly how any venom works”.

While the current pharmaceutical antivenom is given as an injection, researchers have said they hope the new medicine could eventually be applied as a topical cream or spray.

antidote box jellyfish venom
Current treatments for minimising pain include vinegar and hot water.

Landmark research uses genome editing

According to the landmark research published in science journal Nature Communications on Wednesday, the study used CRISPR whole genome editing to identify how the venom worked.

“Using new CRISPR genome editing techniques we could quickly identify how this venom kills human cells,” Associate Professor Neely said.

“Luckily, there was already a drug that could act on the pathway the venom uses to kill cells, and when we tried this drug as a venom antidote on mice, we found it could block the tissue scarring and pain related to jellyfish stings.

“It is super exciting.”

For the antidote to be effective in blocking the venom, it has to be applied to the sting site within 15 minutes of contact.

Current treatments for a box jellyfish sting prior to hospitalisation is dousing the area with vinegar for 30 seconds or running very hot water over the affected area for 20 minutes.

“We know the drug will stop the necrosis, skin scarring and the pain completely when applied to the skin,” Associate Professor Neely said.

“We don’t know yet if it will stop a heart attack.

“That will need more research and we are applying for funding to continue this work.”

The venom used in the study was collected from a box jellyfish in the waters off Cairns by Associate Professor Jamie Seymour at James Cook University.

The Sydney University researchers are now looking for a government or commercial partner to push it forward into the drug market.


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