23 December 2013
Australian scorpion venom could be the next painkiller
Choose your poison: Compounds in scorpion venom found to alleviate pain could be used in future painkillers
Scientists have found unique compounds in the venom of Australian scorpions that have potential uses in pain management drugs.
Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland's school of biological sciences led a group that caught and milked 1500 Australian scorpions, including Victoria's wood scorpion, black rock scorpion and marbled scorpion.
The researchers then established the chemical composition of each type of venom, some of which have proved unique in structure and sequence.
''Because they have been isolated in Australia for so long, their venom is very different to the venom that has been intensively studied for scorpions elsewhere in the world, making them very novel bio-resources,'' Professor Fry said.
Unlike snake venom, little is known about Australian scorpion venom, which historically has been largely overlooked by researchers. Previously, only one species, the desert scorpion, had been studied in such detail.
Among the uses for scorpion venom is its ability to identify pain receptors in humans. Once a site is identified, drugs can be developed to bind to the specific area to minimise pain.
''If we can understand how they are causing the pain we can use it to treat pain,'' Professor Fry said. ''You can't predict where the next wonder-drug will come from. It could be from something as unlikely as a scorpion.''
Each species' venom works in a different way, with a varied combination of 300 to 400 molecules in each venom type collected.
The compounds have potential applications not only in human drug development but in agriculture, Professor Fry said, pointing to funnel-web spider toxins used in insecticides.
The five scorpion species studied hail from three scorpion families, some of which have been evolving independently since separating up to 400 million years ago.
''The results radically shift our understanding as to how scorpion venoms have evolved,'' he said.
Scorpions and centipedes are among the oldest venomous lineages on land. Australian venomous snakes are about 20 million years old, while scorpions are more than 400 million years old.
The research, conducted by Queensland University scientists with colleagues from Canada's Dalhousie University and Portugal's Universidade do Porto, is published in the journal Toxins this month.