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Deadly Australia Spider Venom Could Save Heart Attack Victims  

FILE - A doctor checks a screen showing a graphical representation of a human heart.
FILE - A doctor checks a screen showing a graphical representation of a human heart.

Venom from an Australian spider that is one of the world’s deadliest could save the lives of heart attack victims.

A potentially life-saving treatment for victims of heart attacks has been found in a most unlikely source — the venom of one of the world’s deadliest spiders.

The World Health Organization says cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year.

Researchers from the University of Queensland have discovered that the poison from the Fraser Island funnel-web spider in eastern Australia contains what could be a life-saving molecule, or peptide.

Known as Hi1a, it could block so-called death signals sent to cells after a cardiac arrest, when blood flow to the heart is reduced. This results in a lack of oxygen to the heart muscles, causing cells to become acidic, and a message is sent for heart cells to die.

Despite decades of research, scientists have not been able to develop a drug that stops this death signal. Australian experts have said that is one of the reasons why heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death around the world.

Dr. Sarah Scheuer is a researcher at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, which is part of the spider venom study.

She says the discovery could also help transplant patients.

“We are using this special little peptide from a small portion of the funnel web spider venom," she said. "Well, what we found is this peptide is able to help protect the heart where there is a lack of blood supply or blood flow. And we found that this can be used both not only in heart transplantation, so when the donor heart [is] out of the body during the transplant process. But potentially could also be used in heart attack victims to help minimize the damage that occurs.”

Australian researchers believe that the molecule from spider venom blocks the heart’s ability to sense acid after a cardiac arrest, disrupting the death message.

They have said their vision for the future was for Hi1a to be administered by first responders in the ambulance.

The discovery builds on earlier work that found a small protein in the venom of the Fraser Island funnel-web spider markedly improved patients’ recovery from a stroke.

The protein has been tested in human heart cells, and the Australian team is aiming to start clinical trials for both stroke and heart disease within two to three years.

The research was published in the journal Circulation.