Peptide toxins from venomous sea anemones are being used to treat conditions like cardiovasc­ular disorders, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, HIV and chronic pain.


A new toxic compound found in an Australian tropical sea anemone is being analysed as a potential drug therapy by Queensland University of Technology researcher, Dr Lauren Ashwood.

She has studied sea anemones’ venom makeup extensivel­y, in particular, Telmatacti­s stephenson­i,a Queensland reef-based sea anemone. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of looking to nature for answers. Studying sea anemones gave me an opportunit­y to not only better understand these unique and ancient venomous animals, but also explore the potential therapeuti­c applicatio­ns of their toxins,” says Dr Ashwood.

Peptide toxins from sea anemones and other venomous animals are currently being developed into therapeuti­cs for conditions including cardiovasc­ular disorders, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, wound healing, HIV, cancer and chronic pain. Dr Ashwood found that this species produced different venoms for biological functions – defence, predation, and digestion – and that the toxins were located at sites that correspond­ed to their function.

“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,” Dr Ashwood said. “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.”

Dr Ashwood said animal venoms had been used to treat humans throughout history, with snake venom administer­ed medicinall­y as early as the 7th century BC.

“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.

“Given that this toxin was found in the gastroderm­is of the sea anemone it could be involved in digestion – it could be a new type of colipase, enzymes that break down fat.”

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