Jellyfish antidote: Is CRISPR genome editing the solution?

Jellyfish antidote: Is CRISPR genome editing the solution?
© iStock/dschreiber29

Using CRISPR genome editing, researchers at the University of Sydney, Australia, may have discovered a jellyfish antidote for the most venomous creature on earth.

The Australian box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) has about 60 tentacles that can grow up to three metres long. Each tentacle has millions of microscopic hooks filled with venom and each box jellyfish carries enough venom to kill more than 60 humans. Associate Professor Greg Neely and Dr Raymond (Man-Tat) Lau and their team of pain researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre at University of Sydney were studying how the venom works and with the help of CRISPR genome editing, have found a possible jellyfish antidote.

The much-needed jellyfish antidote

A single sting to a human will cause necrosis of the skin, excruciating pain and, if the dose of venom is large enough, cardiac arrest and death within minutes.

“We were looking at how the venom works, to try to better understand how it causes pain. Using new CRISPR genome editing techniques we could quickly identify how this venom kills human cells. Luckily, there was already a drug that could act on the pathway the venom uses to kill cells, and when we tried this drug as a venom antidote on mice, we found it could block the tissue scarring and pain related to jellyfish stings,” said Associate Professor Neely. “It is super exciting.”

Published in Nature Communications, the study used CRISPR whole genome editing to identify how the venom works. Genome editing is a technology that allows scientists to add, remove or alter genetic material in an organism’s DNA.

The molecular antidote

“The jellyfish venom pathway we identified in this study requires cholesterol, and since there are lots of drugs available that target cholesterol, we could try to block this pathway to see how this impacted venom activity. We took one of those drugs, which we know is safe for human use, and we used it against the venom, and it worked,” said Dr Lau, who is the lead author on the paper.

“It’s a molecular antidote.”

“It’s the first molecular dissection of how this type of venom works, and possible how any venom works,” Lau added. “I haven’t seen a study like this for any other venom.”

“We know the drug will stop the necrosis, skin scarring and the pain completely when applied to the skin,” said Associate Professor Neely, who is the senior author on the paper. “We don’t know yet if it will stop a heart attack. That will need more research and we are applying for funding to continue this work.”

Found in coastal waters in northern Australia and into the waters around the Philippines, the box jellyfish is extremely dangerous. They don’t simply float, they can actively swim, gaining speed of 7.5 kilometres an hour when they are hunting. They feed in shallow waters, mainly small fish and prawns.

Time to make the medicine available to the public

“Our antidote is a medicine that blocks the venom,” said Associate Professor Neely. “You need to get it onto the site within 15 minutes. In our study, we injected it. But the plan would be a spray or a topical cream. The argument against a cream is when you are stung it leaves lots of little stingers in you so if you rub the cream on it might be squeezing more venom into you. But if you spray, it could neutralise what’s left outside of your body.”

Associate Professor Neely and his team are now looking for potential partners to work on making the medicine available to the public.

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