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Real Life Spider-Man? An Eight-Legged Creature is Giving a Sick Boy a Fighting Chance

boy lovingly hugging mother Hollywood knows what it’s doing when it comes to Super Heroes. Regardless of which of the latest blockbusters is being released, the geniuses at the helm of the entertainment industry are hoping you’ll be fascinated by all the fast cars, leaping of buildings, and even love stories contained within these big-screen adventures.

But there’s actually a real-life super hero at work these days; one that’s fighting for a sick little boy hoping for a miracle.

A Real Life Spiderman?

With all the recent “exposure” (thanks to the new Spiderman movie) people are becoming more aware of spiders and how we benefit from them in terms of environmental health.  But it seems as though spiders can also have a great impact on human health, especially for patients suffering from muscular dystrophy.  

It all started years ago when researchers from the University at Buffalo discovered that spider venom from a particular species called the Chilean rose tarantula contains a powerful protein. This protein acts as a cell inhibitor and prevents cells from breaking down.  But even though they were onto something great, no pharmaceutical company would pick their project up and fund them.  

Flash forward to 2009, where a distraught stockbroker from Buffalo is determined to find a way to help his four-year-old grandson, JB, who had just been diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.  This particular type of muscular dystrophy is fatal, and affects only boys.  Most patients end up in wheelchairs by the time they’re 12. And because the heart and diaphragm deteriorates, making it hard to breathe, few ever live past their 30s.  

With such a dismal prognosis, JB’s grandfather, Jeff Harvey, set out to find someone who could help.  By pure coincidence, a Google search led Harvey to Frederick Sachs and his team of researchers from UB – the same researchers that discovered the connection between spider venom and muscular dystrophy.  After several months of correspondence, the two men cofounded a small pharmaceutical company called Tonus Therapeutics, and finally began work on developing and refining the spider venom protein into an effective drug.

How Does It Work?

Normally, healthy cells in your body remain completely closed off and deny anything from entering them.  When these cells become stretched or disfigured, however, calcium and other substances can enter the cell through tunnels called ion channels.  Muscular dystrophy renders cells unable to close off, causing a vicious chain reaction where calcium continues to seep inside the cells, making them lose their shape.  This flood of calcium eats away at the cells and eventually destroys them completely; basically allowing your body to digest your muscles from the inside out.  

The spider venom protein was found to keep the ion channels shut, effectively stopping, or at the very least prolonging, the damaging effects of the disease.  Initial experiments on dystrophic mice have shown promise – the mice actually gained strength and suffered no adverse reactions, even after taking the drugs for more than 40 days.  While the team is quick to point out that this isn’t a cure, they explain that it might help add decades to the lives of afflicted children like JB. 

Cited Sources

Hsu, Charlotte. "Good Venom." Buffalo.edu. University of Buffalo, n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2012. <http://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/good-venom.html>.

Osborne, Charlie. "Could Spider Venom Help Combat Muscular Dystrophy?" SmartPlanet.com. N.p., 17 July 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2012. <http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/smart-takes/could-spider-venom-help-combat-muscular-dystrophy/27839>.

"Protein Found in Spider Venom Could Treat Muscular Dystrophy." ScienceDaily.com. N.p., 16 July 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2012. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120716142657.htm>.


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