The Australian funnel-web spider is generally something you'd want to steer well clear of, but the creepy crawly could soon be helping out stroke victims. A peptide found in the spider's venom has been shown to reduce the brain damage that occurs in the hours following a stroke, with early preclinical studies involving rats having delivered extremely promising results.

A University of Queensland research team, led by Professor Glenn King, has spent several years unravelling the potential medical benefits found in one of the world's most deadly spider venoms. In 2015, the team found a particular peptide in the venom that blocked the pathway responsible for sending pain signals from nerves to the brain.

There are 35 species of funnel web spiders in Australia and the research team has been examining the venom from a particular genus named Hadronyche infensa, which is found along the east coast in New South Wales and Queensland.

"The small protein we discovered, Hi1a, blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the brain, which are key drivers of brain damage after stroke," Professor King explains.

When a person is struck down by a stroke, they most often have a blockage causing reduced blood flow in certain areas of the brain. When these brain cells become starved of oxygen, they switch their metabolic pathways to rely on a different source of energy, but this has a byproduct of producing an acidic condition in the brain that causes permanent cellular damage. This is how a stroke most often leads to brain damage.

In a small study on rats, the research team administered the peptide following induced strokes in rats. They found that a single dose administered two hours after a stroke reduced the potential brain damage by nearly 80 percent. More interestingly, even when the substance was administered eight hours after the stroke, researchers still saw a 65 percent reduction in brain damage.

"One of the most exciting things about Hi1a is that it provides exceptional levels of protection for eight hours after stroke onset, which is a remarkably long window of opportunity for treatment," Professor King adds.

This discovery could pave the way for an effective post-stroke treatment that would significantly mitigate potential damage. Strokes are the second major cause of death worldwide after heart disease, and five million people are left with permanent brain damage every year following an attack. If a neuroprotectant can be developed that protects from stroke-related brain damage and it is easily administered to patients in the immediate hours following an attack, then this could be a major discovery.

While the team are hoping for funding to fast-track the research toward clinical trials in humans in the near future, there are several hurdles that need to be overcome. Their initial study involved the treatment being injected directly into the rat's brain cells, which clearly is not a transferable mode of administration for humans. It is also unclear how effective the process will be in humans immediately following a stroke.

The team's research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.