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Creepy Crawly or Cancer Crusher? Why Caterpillars Could be the Key to a Cure

Ever felt the pain of a caterpillar sting? You’re probably familiar with the surprisingly agonising burn that can come from such a small, innocent-looking creature. But, researchers at Queensland University are looking into how this venom could revolutionise the way we treat cancer.   

Aussie researchers are looking into the ability of caterpillar venom to kill off cancer cells and other pathogens, due to their impressive abilities. Turns out, there’s a reason the pain is so intense – no, you don’t just have a low threshold for pain! These guys have venom that can “punch holes” through cells, making them the Andy Bernard of the animal world. But it’s this special ability that has attracted the attention of researchers, who have set out to discover if this venom can be engineered to fight cancerous cells.

But what exactly is in that venom? You’re not alone if you’re wondering what makes the stuff so potent – and how it actually works. For starters, it’s not the bite that causes the pain, it’s actually their bristles, of which they’re covered in, that leave that lasting sting.

Just look at those bristles! You can feel the pain just by looking, can't you?

It’s been compared to walking on hot coals – if that’s not a sign that this stuff is powerful, we don’t know what is! It was here in Australia’s University of Queensland that the ancestry of caterpillar’s venom – particularly those known as ASPs, evolved from a gene transfer from bacteria some 400 million years ago. So that pain is something of a borrowed superpower that caterpillars have made ample use of in a bid to protect themselves from predators. Good move. So, what’s all this “hole-punching” business? Well, it turns out, the toxins in their venom work in a similar way to salmonella, and it’s why the latter is so dangerous. But, scientists say this isn’t something to fear – it’s actually a breakthrough in the fight against cancer. Researchers will be looking into how they can get these toxins to punch holes into cancer cells.

Oh, and it’s not just caterpillar venom that has piqued researchers’ interest – scientists have also looked into the possibility of spiders – the notorious funnel-web spider at that! – along with centipedes, stonefish and cone snails. The Queensland Institute of Medical Research’s Dr Silvia Saggiomo has studied how Australian stonefish could help manage inflammatory diseases, with hopes to one day be able to synthesise that poison.

"In an ideal world, you could isolate a component, a protein or peptide in the venom, and be able to synthesise it in a lab, so it can be produced and commercialised [as a treatment]," The researcher told the ABC.

At the forefront of this research are, as Dr Saggiomo mentioned, peptides. These are small molecules found within the caterpillar venom, known for their diverse biological activities and are believed to possess the ability to disrupt cancer cells in unique ways. These venom-derived peptides show promise in targeting and destroying cancer cells without decimating healthy cells in quite the same way as current cancer treatments. One of the remarkable aspects of caterpillar venom-derived peptides is their ability to breach the barriers that often hinder traditional cancer therapies. These peptides have shown promise in penetrating the protective shields surrounding cancer cells, thus delivering their toxic payload directly to the heart of the disease. By bypassing the defence mechanisms of cancer cells, caterpillar venom-based therapies could potentially enhance the effectiveness of treatment while minimising the debilitating side effects of treatments like chemotherapy.

But, let’s not get our hopes up just yet – these are the early stages of research, and while it looks promising, we’ve got a long way to go before these treatments would be available. The potential of caterpillar venom in cancer treatment is captivating, but the road to transforming venom-derived peptides into safe and effective cancer therapies is long and complex, with extensive research, rigorous testing, and meticulous refinement are necessary to ensure both the safety and efficacy of these novel treatments. Nevertheless, the groundwork laid by the researchers at Queensland University is more than a little exciting, offering challenges to conventional wisdom and igniting hope for patients and their families worldwide.

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