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Study finds that spider peptide slows melanoma growth

An international study has discovered that a compound extracted from the Australian funnel-web spider is highly effective at killing melanoma cells, as well as cells taken from facial tumours on Tasmanian devils.

It is believed to be the first time the spider-derived peptide has been found to have anti-cancer properties in melanoma and Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) cells. The findings mean the compound could potentially become the basis for a new treatment for DFTD and melanoma in future.

The study was led by QIMR Berghofer researchers Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou and Dr Manuel A. Fernandez-Rojo, along with collaborators from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland.

The researchers tested the peptide – which is very similar to the known Gomesin peptide from the Brazilian spider Acanthoscurria gomesiana – in a series of laboratory experiments.

Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou, who led the study, said the early results were very promising.

“We decided to test this spider compound because it was very similar in chemical composition to a compound from a Brazilian spider, which was already known to have anti-cancer properties although it had never been tested in devil facial tumour cells,” Dr Ikonomopoulou said.

“In our laboratory experiments we found that the Australian funnel-web spider peptide was better at killing melanoma cancer cells and stopping them from spreading than the Brazilian spider peptide. Additionally, the Australian spider peptide did not have a toxic effect on healthy skin cells.

“When we tested the Australian spider peptide on human melanoma cells in the laboratory, it killed the majority of them. We also found the peptide slowed the growth of melanomas in mice.”

Dr Ikonomopoulou and Dr Fernandez-Rojo also tested the compound on cells taken from facial tumours on Tasmanian devils.

“Similar to the effect in melanoma cells, we found that the Australian spider peptide killed the DFTD cells, but didn’t affect the healthy cells as much,” she said.

“We also experimented with different versions of the compound to try to find which one would be best at killing the DFTD cells,” she said.

“When we altered two particular amino acids in the peptide chain, the compound became even better at destroying the DFTD cells”.

“This research is still at a very early stage, but these results are very promising. There are many years of work ahead, but we hope that this compound could in the future be developed into a new treatment for melanoma and DFTD.

“These findings prompt us to continue investigating the potential of bioactive compounds derived from venom to treat melanoma, liver diseases, obesity and metabolism, as well as against the Tasmanian devil tumors in collaboration with the biopharmaceutical industry.”

Dr Ikonomopoulou and Dr Fernandez-Rojo are now based at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Studies, IMDEA-Food.

The findings have been published recently in two separate studies in the journals Scientific Reports and Cell Death Discovery.