Could fetal alcohol spectrum disorder be treated with scorpion venom?
We only just recently heard how scorpion venom could be utilized to kill harmful bacteria, and to reverse inflammation. A new study now indicates that it also may find use in the treatment of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Caused by consuming alcohol during pregnancy, FASD typically results in learning disabilities, and is often first noticed in the form of motor skill problems. Led by Dr. Kazue Hashimoto-Torii, scientists from the Washington DC-located Children's National Hospital set out to learn more about what actually happens to the fetus, and what could subsequently be done to fix the damage.
They started by exposing gestating mouse fetuses to alcohol 16 and 17 days after the moment of fertilization – this is the period in which brain cells grow predominantly in the upper cortex, which is a region of the brain that plays a key role in motor function. In human fetuses, that developmental period occurs in early- to mid-gestation.
Thirty days after the baby mice were born, they were subjected to tests designed to assess their large- and small-muscle motor skills. Compared to a control group, the rodents were found to have significant deficits in both areas.
The researchers discovered that the prenatal alcohol exposure caused some of each fetus's brain cells to produce protective "heat shock" proteins. This in turn caused those cells to over-express a gene known as Kcnn2 – which has previously been linked to learning and memory functions – and to exhibit abnormal firing patterns.
Those patterns reverted to normal, however, when the scientists treated the baby FASD mice with a medicinal toxin called Tamapin, which is derived from Indian red scorpion venom. This reaction was likely due to the fact that the medication blocked a calcium-activated potassium channel, which is encoded by Kcnn2. As a result, the mice showed notable improvements in both large- and small-muscle motor skills.
Hashimoto-Torii and colleagues have now established a spinoff company, to investigate the use of Tamapin for treating FASD in humans. And should you be wondering how all that scorpion venom will be obtained … well, perhaps by using a new scorpion-milking machine.
The research is described in a paper that was recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.