Dravet syndrome, a rare but severe and deadly form of epilepsy which kills at a rate 30 times higher than other childhood-onset epilepsies, has perplexed scientists for years. Now, a new study has shown that the cure might be present in, of all things, tarantula venom.
Researchers have, since Dravet syndrome was identified more than 30 years ago, learned Dravet syndrome cases are caused by a genetic mutation that impedes function in a gene known as SCN1A. The gene produces a protein called Nav1.1. that controls the electrical properties of neurons in the brain, and children with Dravet syndrome do not produce enough of the protein to control this electric activity (epileptic seizures result from a disturbance in electric activity in the brain).
According to The Conversation:
In the brain, Nav1.1 exists predominantly in a group of neurons that are responsible for calming brain activity. A malfunction in Nav1.1 inhibits that calming ability, leading to seizures.
The brain begins producing Nav1.1 in the weeks following birth, with production increasing as a baby ages. This may explain why Dravet syndrome does not become apparent until five to eight months after birth.
Australian researchers from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and the University of Queensland published a study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America which found that the venom of the West African Tarantula contains peptides that produce proteins, which have been known to prevent epileptic seizures. The researchers tested their hypothesis on mice, finding that the tarantula venom reduced seizures in mice with Dravet syndrome and even lengthened their lifespans.
“Most treatments for epilepsy are looking at tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of drugs, hoping to find one that stops the seizures. We did this in one step, which shows how precision medicine works with fundamental knowledge of the disease,” said Professor Steven Petrou, director of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and the study’s lead author.
Petrou added that this research is an example of “precision medicine,” which is, according to the Precision Medicine Initiative, defined as “an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.”