18 June 2001

For the first time in Australia, a University of Queensland molecular biologist has analysed at a molecular level the toxins of funnel-web venom from a spider responsible for the near death of its victim.

PhD student in UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience David Wilson conducted the analysis following a funnel-web spider attack on an eight-month-old baby boy at Maleny, north of Brisbane in November 1998.

"Fortunately, the parents caught the spider responsible - a male spider which is typically more venomous - and sent it to the Queensland Museum for examination," Mr Wilson said.

"The spider was milked for venom two days after it bit the child, and I was able to compare molecular data from the spider with clinical data for the first time."

Work at UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience aims to increase knowledge about the spiders' venom, by isolating and characterising components in sufficient quantities to unlock the secrets of its biological activity and molecular structure.

The venom, which has interested scientists for several decades, is turning out to be much more complex than originally thought.

In a joint program with the Queensland Museum the scientists are collecting funnel web spiders from various Australian regions. The spiders are milked by Mr Wilson for subsequent analysis.

While improving knowledge of both the toxins and how they act on human receptors, the program could also improve knowledge of which are the most deadly species, and lead to new treatments.

Mr Wilson, who wilI take up a position with the IMB spinoff company Xenome, recently submitted his PhD, supervised by Professor Paul Alewood whose Peptide and Venom Research Group at the IMB is interested in developing new drugs and novel toxins as therapeutic agents.

The group is conducting a world-class research program on venoms from marine snails, funnel-web spiders, snakes, and scorpions. The program is isolating, characterising, synthesising and determining (using X-ray crystallography/NMR spectroscopy) the structures of these highly potent peptides with pharmaceutical potential.

Mr Wilson's work examined funnel-web spider toxins from the two main genera, Atrax and Hadronyche, from different areas of Australia from Sydney to Fraser Island. PhD student Johan Rosengren assisted in some of the structure calculations. Earlier work at the IMB by Dianne Alewood and Trudy Bond found a venom component in the Australian funnel-web spiders similar to that found in the unrelated American funnel-web spider.

"Much of my research is using molecular biology as a taxonomic tool, using the venom to provide positive identification of each sub-species," he said.

"The presence of different toxins results from different genes and gene sequences. We can analyse the toxins to provide rapid results - within an hour - in a mass spectrometer.

"We've identified 28 novel toxins from five species, and we don't yet know much about their activity."

The project includes creating a database of molecular species variants, and also examining the targets of the anti-venom used for treatment.

Some 14 deaths have been recorded from funnel-web bites in the Sydney region. An anti-venom has only been available since 1980. Australia has an estimated 40 funnel web species, with several new species in south-east Queensland being recently discovered by Queensland Museum scientist and UQ adjunct appointment Dr Robert Raven.

Mr Wilson said he had his lifetime's work cut out for him, as scientists had only limited knowledge of these creatures, despite the fact that funnel-web spiders are widely found in rainforest areas of Eastern Australia.

For further information, contact David Wilson or Professor Paul Alewood, telephone 3365 1271.