Tarantula venom shows promise as type 2 diabetes treatment

Alexandra Thompson
·3-min read
Young woman measures blood sugar level. Diabetes using lancet.
Diabetes patients have to monitor their blood sugar levels. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Spiders are a phobia for many, however, new research suggests the eight-legged critters could help treat type 2 diabetes.

Medication helps keep a patient's blood sugar at a healthy level, with the drugs often having to become more aggressive as the disease progresses.

Venom from the Mexican blonde tarantula has been found to increase production of the blood sugar-lowering hormone insulin. Type 2 diabetes comes about when a patient's body cannot make a sufficient level of insulin or that which is produced does not work properly.

A team from Ulster University in Northern Ireland has created a synthetic version of a key molecule within the venom, which rapidly reduced blood sugar levels in mice with elevated glucose.

Read more: Up to two-thirds of coronavirus patients in hospital have diabetes

A large brown Rose Hair Tarantula crawling in the garden, Chile, South America
Tarantulas make many people's skin crawl, but could have potential when treating type 2 diabetes. (Stock, Getty Images)

The novel experiment may "ultimately lead to the development of new therapies to help people with type 2 diabetes manage their condition better and reduce their risk of serious diabetes-related complications".

In the UK alone, 3.9 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, of whom around 90% have type 2. 

Type 2 diabetes specifically comes about when the insulin-producing beta cells within the pancreas do not work properly. 

Read more: Filtered coffee reduces type 2 diabetes risk

As a result, a patient's blood sugar level can become dangerously high, putting them at risk of complications like heart disease, blindness and limb amputations.

Metformin is often the go-to treatment, however, the dose or drug typically has to change as type 2 diabetes progresses. 

Speaking of the Ulster study, Dr Elizabeth Robertson from Diabetes UK – which funded the research, said: "This innovative research has revealed a promising new treatment avenue that could in future help improve or restore beta cell function in people living with type 2 diabetes. 

"It is hoped that research such as this will ultimately lead to the development of new therapies to help people with type 2 diabetes manage their condition better and reduce their risk of serious diabetes-related complications.

"We look forward to further studies to explore whether tarantula venom-based therapy could be developed to be effective and safe in people, providing a new weapon in the armoury for treating type 2 diabetes."

The Ulster scientists analysed what gives the venom of the Mexican blonde tarantula its insulin-lowering properties, pinpointing a molecule called ΔTRTX-Ac1.

After creating a synthetic version of ΔTRTX-Ac1, beta cells' insulin secretion more than doubled in a laboratory experiment. 

Read more: Coronavirus linked to onset of type 1 diabetes in children

ΔTRTX-Ac1 was also found to improve beta cell growth without damaging them. 

In a second part of the study – presented at the Diabetes UK Professional Conference 2021 – the scientists injected mice with both glucose and ΔTRTX-Ac1.

The rodents' blood sugar levels steadily reduced over the next hour, suggesting ΔTRTX-Ac1 also ramps up insulin's release in the animals.

The treated mice also went on to eat less, suggesting ΔTRTX-Ac1 may have suppressed the rodents' appetite.

Type 2 diabetes is linked to being overweight or obese. Patients are advised to adjust their diet and regularly exercise to help control their condition.

"Tarantula venom contains millions of biologically active molecules that may have therapeutic potential," said study author Aimee Coulter Parkhill, a PhD student. 

"This research highlights one specific molecule from the venom of the Mexican Blonde tarantula which shows promise in treating diabetes. 

"We are excited to follow up on our pilot studies to understand how ΔTRTX-Ac1 could in future help people living with type 2 diabetes."

Watch: Most humans vulnerable to type 2 diabetes