UCSF researchers using tarantulas to study pain

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- If someday you're able to take a new and revolutionary pain medicine, you could have tarantulas to thank for.

Even if you can't spot a tarantula's fangs with your own eyes, you'll be painfully aware if he sinks them into you. And you can thank evolution for that. "These animals have had lots of time to come up with lots of different ways of triggering pain," UCSF researcher Jeremiah Osteen, Ph.D., said.

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In their lab at UCSF, Osteen and his colleagues collect and study the pain-producing venoms from a variety of scary creatures from around the world. From tarantula's and snakes, to an out-sized wasp. Their goal isn't to cause pain, but figure out new ways to interrupt it. "There's different things in these venoms that trigger different pathways and so for us, it's really kind of a goldmine," Osteen said.

First they isolate molecules in the venom, and attempt to identify their effects on the body. In the recent case of a West African tarantula, that detective work revealed a breakthrough. The venom, they found, works on a lesser studied type of pain nerve associated with the type of discomfort you feel when someone pinches you. "They help us identify molecules and neural circuits, nerve circuitry that elicit pain," lab director David Julius, Ph.D., said.

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Julius said the ultimate goal is to find drugs that stop in specific ways, and possibly provide alternatives to powerful pain killers like opioids. "And think a little bit more rationally about new ways to develop drugs that act on those molecules and act on those pathways to turn the pain signals down," Julius said.

And back in the lab, the UCSF team continues to test some of the most painful products of evolution, searching for new clues to help humans live more comfortable, less painful lives.

So the tarantula venom targets an important signaling molecule within pain nerves that is also present in the brain, where it is involved in diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease and autism.

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Written and produced by Tim Didion.
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