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Venomous sea anemone may lead to important drugs

A new study has revealed that sea anemones use different toxins for different purposes – defense, predation or digestion. Lauren Ashwood, a PhD researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, has analyzed the toxins of the reef-based sea anemone Telmatactis stephensoni for their potential as drugs. 

“Unlike snakes which deliver their venom via fangs, T. stephensoni venom is a complex cocktail of toxins that is found in stinging cells throughout the sea anemone’s structure,” said Ashwood.

“Analysis of the sea anemone’s three major functional regions: the tentacles, epidermis and gastrodermis — found the locations of toxin production are consistent with their ecological role of catching prey, defence and digestion. This means when we study the toxins in the context of what they do, we have an idea of how they might be useful for therapeutics.”

Toxins can be medicinal at different doses and things that in one context can kill you in a different one can cure you. In fact, toxins have been used as medicines at least as far back as the seventh century BC. 

“Peptide toxins from venomous animals are being developed into therapeutics for conditions, including cardiovascular disorders, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, wound healing, HIV, cancer and chronic pain,” explained Ashwood, 

“In all we found 84 potential toxins in T. stephensoni including one that hadn’t been seen before. A sample of this unknown toxin, named U-Tstx-1, has been sent to a specialised lab in Hungary for analysis.”

New analytical techniques have led to discoveries from cruder testing methods of using a toxin against a targeted problem to a toxin driven method. 

“This new strategy allows for the discovery of peptides that might have remained undiscovered, for example, those which may not be highly abundant in the venom or which possess unanticipated mechanisms of action,” said Professor Peter Prentis from the Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy and the School of Biology and Environmental Science.

“Toxin-driven discovery to find therapeutic candidates, however, can be like finding a needle in a haystack and not all peptide toxins are likely to have the same success as pharmaceuticals.”

The study is published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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