Box Jelly research breakthrough brings antidote closer

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STINGER: Deaths and serious injury from box jellyfish stings may be a thing of the past. Image and video courtesy of University of Sydney.
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A drug used in the treatment of cholesterol in humans could hold the key to an antidote to the deadly Box Jellyfish sting.

Researchers from the University of Sydney made the discovery while researching exactly how box jellyfish venom effects human cells.

Associate Professor Greg Neely and Dr Raymond (Man-Tat) Lau and their team of pain researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre made the discovery.

They uncovered a medicine that blocks the symptoms of a box jellyfish sting if administered to the skin within 15 minutes after contact.

“We were looking at how the venom works, to try to better understand how it causes pain,” said Associate Professor Neely.

“Using new CRISPR genome editing techniques we could quickly identify how this venom kills human cells.

“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.”

Genome editing is a technology that allows scientists to add, remove, or alter genetic material in an organism’s DNA.

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

The researchers took a vat of millions of human cells and knocked out a different human gene in each one.

Then they added the box jellyfish venom - which kills cells at high doses - and looked for cells that survived.

“The jellyfish venom pathway we identified in this study requires cholesterol, and since there are lots of drugs available that target cholesterol, we could try to block this pathway to see how this impacted venom activity,” said Dr Lau, the lead author on the research paper.

“We took one of those drugs, which we know is safe for human use, and we used it against the venom, and it worked as a molecular antidote.”

Associate professor Neely said the drug would stop the necrosis, skin scarring and the pain completely when applied to the skin.

“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,” he said.

There are two types of box jellyfish, the infamous Irukandji and the larger Chironex fleckeri, which is about three metres long.

“We studied the biggest, most venomous and scary one,” said Associate Professor Neely.

“Our drug works on the big beast. We don’t know yet if it works on other jellyfish, but we know it works on the most-deadly one.”

The researchers are looking into a way to deliver the drug as a spray to be administered to the sting area within 15 minutes.

Associate Professor Neely and his team are now looking for potential partners to work on making the medicine available to the public.



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