FILE - A stroke patient undergoes an electrocardiogram while recovering at Juntendo University Hospital in Tokyo.
FILE - A stroke patient undergoes an electrocardiogram while recovering at Juntendo University Hospital in Tokyo.

SYDNEY - Venom from a dangerous spider could give stroke patients a better chance of survival, according to Australian biochemists.

A bite from the Fraser Island funnel-web spider can kill a person in 15 minutes, but its venom could be used to develop a drug to prevent brain damage. Scientists say the toxins can shut off a pathway in the brain that triggers the widespread death of cells after a stroke. 

Researchers at the University of Queensland believe it's a breakthrough that could protect stroke patients while they are being taken to hospital. Doctors talk about a four-and-a-half-hour window to give proper care and drugs to stroke patients, meaning those who live far from a hospital can miss that window.

The research team believes a drug developed from spider venom could be administered immediately by paramedics, protecting patients from further brain damage following a stroke.

"The brain becomes acidic, and it turns out there is this little ion channel sitting on your neurons called acid sensing ion channel, which senses this decrease in PH," said lead scientist Professor Glenn King. "It turns on and it sets off a cell death pathway for reasons we do not understand and your neurons begin to die, and so what we found in the venom of the Fraser Island funnel-web spider is the best known inhibitor of that channel, and if you inhibit that channel you prevent the neurons dying. So we cannot stop neurons that have already died, but we have shown that you can give this drug up to eight hours after the stroke and still get really massive protection of the brain."

The Fraser Island funnel-web spider is unique to the Australian state of Queensland. It lives in burrows beneath soil and sand.

Clinical trials are some way off, but the team says that experiments with rodents have been successful.

The World Health Organization says that stroke is the second leading cause of death globally, and the third leading cause of disability. 

In Australia, it is estimated that 56,000 people suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year.