The study of venom in medicine has traditionally been confined to understanding its effect as a toxin and developing antidotes. But scientists are becoming increasingly interested in studying venom systems and their toxins in order to discover ingredients to make new drugs.

Prof. Fry holds up a box jellyfishShare on Pinterest
Prof. Fry says their new milking method promises to remove a major bottleneck in jellyfish venom research.
Image credit: UQ/B.G. Fry

For – as encapsulated in the saying attributed to Paracelsus, “It is only the dose which makes a thing poison” – the study of natural poison systems and their evolution can yield insights into how they, or their components, might also be used to heal.

This was the underlying purpose of a study – led by the University of Queensland (UQ) and published in the journal Toxins – that describes a new technique for “milking” the Australian box jellyfish of its deadly venom, in order to increase the supply of ingredients for making lifesaving drugs.

In the animal kingdom, venom plays a range of roles, from helping predators immobilize their prey to helping prey defend against predators.

And yet, despite their biological importance, we know little about how venom systems evolved, says senior author Bryan G. Fry, venomologist and UQ associate professor.

Prof. Fry says extracting venom from box jellyfish is much more challenging than trying to get it from snakes and spiders, which may explain why we do not know as much about their venom systems. He notes:

“Jellyfish and other cnidarians are the oldest living venomous creatures, but research has been hampered by a lack of readily obtainable venom harvested in a reproducible manner.”

The box jellyfish that Prof. Fry and colleagues studied is called Chironex fleckeri. According to the National Science Foundation, this species of box jellyfish is the world’s most venomous animal – it can kill a person in under 3 minutes, a world record. On average, one person a year dies in Australia after suffering a sting from this creature.

Yet, despite the supreme deadliness of the free-swimming marine animals, more papers are published about snake venom in 1 year than have ever been published about jellyfish venom, says Prof. Fry, who suggests the main reason is a lack of venom supply.

He says the venom-extraction method that he and his colleagues have developed is practical and highly efficient, and it promises to remove a major bottleneck in the field of jellyfish venom research.

Other attempts to extract venom from jellyfish either take several weeks or have only managed to extract tiny amounts, says Prof. Fry. Plus, he adds, they also contaminate the venom with mucus or other unwanted material.

Their method, which they describe in their paper, uses ethanol to cause the venom cells – called nematocysts – in the jellyfish’s tentacles to fire. As soon as the cells begin firing, the researchers can collect the venom – in what is effectively a “one-step” process.

When they analyzed the content of the venom they “milked” from the box jellyfish, the team found two toxins that were already known to exist in the venom – CfTX-A/B and CfTX-1 – and some new proteins and peptides.

The team notes that the study not only reveals a much more complex toxin profile for Australian box jellyfish, but it also suggests the ethanol extraction method could help further research into the venom systems of jellyfish and other cnidarians.

In previous work, Prof. Fry and his team discovered that the venom of the iconic Komodo Dragon has shock-inducing, hypotensive and anticoagulant properties, and that Antarctic octopus venoms show a unique ability to adapt to specific, different temperatures.

Prof. Fry says he finds it rather ironic that it is ethanol that helps extract the box jellyfish venom, as it is exactly what you would not use in the first-aid treatment of a sting from such a creature because it would make it worse. He concludes:

All aspects of this research come with unique difficulties, such as handling a delicate animal which is impossible to keep or breed in captivity and is found only in cyclone-prone areas of northern Australia and the Indo-Pacific region, often in crocodile habitat.”

Earlier this year, Medical News Today learned of another study – also led by the University of Queensland – that identified new compounds in spider venom that could help treat chronic pain – the most common cause of long-term disability in the US.