Could spider venom help combat muscular dystrophy?

Summary:Spider-Man may be the darling of theatergoers across the West, but for a team in Upstate New York, spider venom has a very different meaning.

Spider-Man may be the darling of theatergoers across the West, but for a team in Upstate New York, spider venom has a very different meaning.

It began in 2009. A stockbroker from Buffalo, Jeff Harvey, discovered his grandson JB had Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The condition causes muscle to waste away, caused by a defective gene for dystrophin -- a protein in the muscles. It is currently fatal and there is no known cure.

However, it often occurs in people without a known family history of the condition, and due to nature of inheritance, only boys are affected. The sons of women who carry the defective gene have a 50 percent chance of displaying the disease; whereas girls have a 50 percent chance of becoming carriers.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy occurs in approximately 1 out of every 3,600 male infants.

After discovering his grandson had the condition -- symptoms generally appearing before the age of six -- Harvey searched Google for treatment and studies. He came across University at Buffalo scientist Frederick Sachs, PhD, a professor of physiology and biophysics who was studying the medical benefits of venom.

Sachs and his colleagues were researching the properties of the Chilean rose tarantula, and discovered that a protein within the venom may be suitable to keep muscular dystrophy at bay. In particular, the team found that the protein could halt the degeneration of muscle cells.

Within months of getting in touch, Harvey and Sachs co-founded Tonus Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company aiming to develop the protein as a commercially-viable drug. In preliminary experiments, mice gained strength and suffered no toxic reactions while on the drug for more than 40 days.

It won't be a cure, and is yet to be trialed on humans, but it may be able to extend the lifespan and quality of life in muscular dystrophy sufferers.

It might seem a little crazy, but cures and preventative therapies can be found in the most unlikely of places. Frederick Sachs noted:

"No one in their right mind would give spider spit to a kid with dystrophy. It's only through the basic science that you can end up here. If you keep your eyes open, you see things you would never have looked for."

Image credit: Frederick Sachs

This post was originally published on

Topics: Innovation


Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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