Scientists Discover Anti-Venom for the Deadly Box Jellyfish

The breakthrough was made using the CRISPR gene editing technology.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have discovered an antivenom for the world's most venomous sea creature - the Australian box jellyfish.

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A box jellyfish has 60 tentacles, each that has millions of microscopic hooks filled with venom. One jellyfish has enough venom to kill 60 humans. Being stung by a box jellyfish ranges from intense pain and necrosis of the skin to death from cardiac arrest within minutes.

CRISPR helps with breakthrough

The deadly animal lives in the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific region and northern Australia. Associate Professor Greg Neely and Dr. Raymond (Man-Tat) Lau in combination with a team of pain researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney made the discovery.

The researchers were researching how the venom of the jellyfish works when they made the discovery.

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

"It is super exciting."

Understanding pain 

They tested the drug on human cells outside the body then did further testing on live mice. The results so far have been extraordinary.

The team will now work to make the anti-venom a topical cream suitable for human use. The anti-venom breakthrough is thanks to the CRISPR whole gene editing technology.

As part of their exploration into how the venom works the researchers took a sample of millions of human cells and deleted a different human gene in each one. They then added in the jellyfish venom and checked to see which cells survived.

Molecular antivenom

The genome screening identified human factors that are required for the venom to work.

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"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. We took one of those drugs, which we know is safe for human use, and we used it against the venom, and it worked," said Dr. Lau, who is the lead author on the paper.

It's the first known molecular dissection of how a venom of this type works. The researchers can confirm their antivenom stops necrosis, skin scarring, and the pain completely when applied to the skin, but they are not yet sure if it will stop a heart attack from occurring. The team will continue their research into the drug.

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There are two types of box jellyfish, the Irukandji, which is very small, and the Chironex fleckeri, which is about three meters 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."

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