Spider venom for libido and caterpillars for pain – insects being used in medicine
Tens of millions of us are scared of spiders , and around 13m are terrified of snakes, according to a recent poll.
In fact, when it comes to phobias, the fear of creepy-crawlies far outstrips any modern-day stresses, such as running out of phone battery or no wi-fi access.
But these attitudes may soon need to change as scientists discover more and more of their health-boosting secrets.
Insect use in medicine is not new.
Maggots have been used for centuries to clean infected wounds.
Leeches are still deployed to improve blood flow when circulation is bad.
But that could be just the start. In the search for new and potent treatments, scientists seeking answers are increasingly turning to the insects we love to hate.
Could caterpillars cure sore joints?
Researchers at Nottingham University recently discovered that a fungus growing on caterpillars could be a revolutionary new treatment for millions of osteoarthritis sufferers.
The fungus contains cordycepin, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory compound thought to have fewer side-effects than existing medicines but potentially even more effective.
It has been used in traditional eastern medicine for centuries, but is only now attracting attention from those developing pharmaceutical-grade drugs.
Researcher Dr Cornelia de Moor predicts it will be a completely new type of painkiller within a few years. She says: “There was a lot scepticism from other scientists but we were stunned by the results we got from a pilot study.”
Sea snail drug that zaps severe pain
A drug that harnesses the power of deadly sea snail venom is given to patients who cannot tolerate treatments such as morphine. Called Prialt, it’s based on a toxin released by the Magician’s Cone Snail, usually found in tropical waters, such as in the South Pacific.
The snail uses venom to paralyse passing fish. But nearly 30 years ago, researchers found that a chemical in the poison could also block pain signals in the human brain.
A synthetic version of the chemical was developed, which forms the basis of the drug in use today.
Tucking into mealworms could cut your cholesterol
They are the protein-packed snack most of us only encounter as bird food on sale at the local garden centre.
But dried-out mealworms could be the next big thing in tackling high cholesterol – a major cause of heart attack and stroke. Scientists at the Justus Liebig
University, in Germany, who fed obese rats a mealworm diet for four weeks, saw significant declines in levels of cholesterol, the fatty substance in the blood that can cause damage, increasing the risk of a life-threatening clot.
The scientists predict the insects could be used to help humans too, especially those who want to avoid potential side-effects from statins, which are taken by around 8m people in the UK to combat high cholesterol.
Spider that gives men a boost in the bedroom
A spider in the bedroom rarely puts anyone in the mood for sex. But the venom from the world’s deadliest variety could be the secret to bolstering a man’s love life.
Toxins produced by the Brazilian Wandering Spider, or Phoneutria nigriventer, appear to combat erectile dysfunction within 20 minutes of entering the body by raising levels of nitric oxide, a chemical that dilates blood vessels and improves blood flow.
A team at the University of Minas Gerais in Brazil recently announced they had developed a cream made with a synthetic version of the deadly poison.
Brain surgery breakthrough thanks to wasps
It’s a question heard at many summer barbecues ruined by the
presence of wasps: “what good do they do?”
Now British scientists may have found out. A team at Imperial College London is developing new tools for brain surgery based on the female wood-boring wasp, native to Europe, Asia and north Africa.
It has a hollow, needle-like probe protruding from her rear – called an ovipositor – which is used to deposit eggs deep inside the wood of dead or dying trees.
What’s unique is that the probe is powerful enough to bore through rotting wood but flexible enough to bend round any hard bits in search of softer material.
The Imperial team developed probes that mimic this feature to deliver drugs deep into the brain.
Got an infection? Try cockroach brains
The race is on to develop a new
generation of antibiotics that deadly bacteria are not resistant to. Now it seems a good helping of cockroach brains might provide a solution.
Nottingham University scientists have found the insects’ brain tissue contains substances able to kill more than 90% of bacteria belonging to two of the most dangerous superbugs, MRSA and E. coli. And with hardly any side-effects.
The next step is to copy the bug-busting substances for antibiotics.
Bees that take the sting out of arthritis
It’s more than 100 years since the
painkilling properties of bee venom in arthritis were first noticed.
Honey bee sting contains natural ingredients which dampen down inflammation in the joints and may even interrupt pain signals to the brain.
There are creams and ointments made with bee sting, or it can be given by an expert using an ultra-thin acupuncture needle to inject
minute amounts of the venom into
the damaged joint.
Although some people even resort to allowing themselves to be stung to try to combat their pain, a 2014 report in the British Medical Journal said there was not enough evidence to support the practice.
Banish ugly warts with beetle juice
Blister beetles have their name for a reason. When under attack, they squirt a liquid at the enemy that makes skin blister. As it turns out, this is the perfect treatment for warts, and scientists have turned it into a medicine called cantharidin.
Once a few drops of the medicine are applied to the area, the body reacts by forming a big blister on top of the wart. The blister then separates the wart from the skin and once it has fallen off, healthy new skin grows underneath.
Beat alzheimer’s by eating silkworms
Alzheimer’s is a debilitating disease, but would you go as far as eating silkworm pupae to try to prevent it? A study at the University of Khon Kaen in Thailand found that rats fed a regular diet of baby silkworms showed they had better memory scores and were significantly less likely to develop the brain-wasting illness.
One way they may work is by reducing oxidative stress in the brain, where oxygen-rich molecules destroy vital brain cells.
“Silkworm pupae could be a functional food to protect against Alzheimer’s disease,” researchers say.
Medical glue made from slugs
Medical glue is widely used these days but it’s not easy to develop one that bonds tightly in a wet environment.
Harvard University scientists have created a so-called bio-glue, based on the mucus secreted by slugs which, they claim, is very strong and sticks even in very moist situations.
It’s from the Dusky Arion slug, which creates a very sticky mucus as a defence against predators.
In tests, scientists used the slug glue to seal up a hole in a pig’s beating heart.