What happened next: Spider venom kills crop bugs and treats heart attacks

The dream was a less toxic alternative to synthetic pesticides. The reality is thriving companies addressing issues in both crops and patients.

In the 1940s, scientists discovered the insect-killing properties of synthetic chemical compounds, including DDT, chlordane and lindane. Such products were cheap to produce and very effective at protecting crops and fighting insect-borne disease. But by the 1960s, it was apparent that these chemicals — which can persist in nature long after initial use — were accumulating in the environment. What’s more, many were harmful to birds, fish, reptiles and mammals.

Much of this came to light through Rachel Carson’s revelatory book Silent Spring, published in 1962, but scientists already had begun to look for less toxic pest control alternatives.

In 2018 Cosmos reported on Queensland biochemist Glenn King’s efforts to turn spider venom into a biopesticide that farmers could use to protect their crops. Unlike man-made chemicals, venom peptides wouldn’t persist in the environment for years and would target specific types of insects without harming fish, reptiles, birds, or mammals.

“Spiders are professional insect killers,” King told Cosmos. In 2005, he founded a biotech company called Vestaron and by 2018 the firm had just begun selling its first biopesticide, called Spear®-T.

So, what happened next?

Let’s start last: In October Professor Glenn King was awarded the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for his work on the chemistry of venoms and their potential for biopesticides and therapeutics.

King, who remains on the scientific advisory board of Vestaron, told Cosmos that Vestaron has since shown that it can scale up the production of its insecticides and develop new pipelines, with new products due for release.

“There was no question at that point that what we were producing was very ecologically friendly, and much better than what was out there. The question was more about manufacture, can you manufacture it well and can you manufacture it cheaply?” he says.

The key is to be cost-competitive with traditional chemical insecticides.

According to King, the first products Vestaron released were cost-competitive on specialty crops – fruits, nuts in greenhouses for example – because these farmers tend to be willing to pay slightly higher prices. But the next step involved expanding the scale at which they could manufacture to produce insecticides for broad acre crops – such as cotton, soybean, and rice.

“The bottom line is [the peptide is] grown like beer. So, the yeast is programmed to make the peptide and they’re now grown massively,” he explains.

“The real breakthrough was that at the beginning of this year, [Vestaron] released their first broad acre insecticide [Spear® RC] and now they have a product that can be sprayed on broad acre crops. It’s obviously great from the farmers’ point of view, but also from the company’s point of view, because that is a much, much bigger market.”

He says that these insecticides still have the same advantageous properties – safe for bees and lacking a pre-harvest delay, because you can spray in the morning and harvest in the afternoon.

But the applications of venom-derived peptides doesn’t end there.

Peptides show promise for therapeutics too

King leads a group at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland that explores arthropod venoms to find novel peptides with potential to become drugs for nervous system disorders.

In 2021, Cosmos reported on King’s work involving a preclinical trial investigating the use of a peptide, called Hi1a, found in an Australian funnel web’s venom, for the treatment of heart attack and heart transplant.

Ischemic conditions, with reduced blood flow and lack of oxygen, causes the cell environment to become acidic, which sends a message to the cells to die.

This research found that Hi1a blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the heart, so that this death message is blocked. As a result, cell death is reduced and heart cell survival increases.

On the back of that research King co-founded another company Infensa Bioscience – named after the spider Hadronyche infensa that produced Hi1a – to develop therapeutics to treat ischemic conditions like stroke, myocardial infarction, and transplants.

“Amazingly, we raised $23 million entirely from Australian private investors. So, it’s a completely Australian-backed company and it’s based in Brisbane, employing Australian scientists,” says King, who is also Chief Scientific Officer at Infensa.

“It’s been a really hard road the last two years. We’ve put a lot of work into this, we’ve made I think something like 150 different analogues of the compound to get the one that’s going to work the best. We are focused on trying to get the drug into clinical trials for heart attack next year.”

Don’t worry, Cosmos will report on what happens next.

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