GROUNDBREAKING research into the use of spider venom as a drug against parasitic worms, including Barber’s Pole in sheep, could be the new cure to many producers’ problems.
Gastrointestinal nematodes, including Barber’s pole worm, cost the Australian sheep industry over $435 million dollars each year having become resistant to drugs.
It’s led University of Queensland PhD student Samantha Nixon to transform spider venoms into new anti-parasitic drugs.
Ms Nixon said the discoveries she makes against Barber’s pole could also be applied to human parasites and cats, dogs or cattle.
“I have been looking at Barber’s pole initially but now I have also moved into Malaria, hook worms and also a type of human parasite,” she said.
“I have been testing over 200 venoms against these parasites and it turned out they worked on every parasite that I tried which was incredible and unexpected as it was the first time someone has tried this.”
Not from an agricultural background, Ms Nixon was drawn to the research in her passion for improving the lives of humans and animals.
“The problem is we can’t treat these parasites effectively,” she said.
“The parasites have drug resistance so the treatments used aren’t as effective anymore because the parasites have evolved ways to either get rid of the drug or stop the drug from working.
“We need to find new treatments to protect our sheep and our farmers livelihoods.”
Venoms are a fantastic source of potential drugs because they have evolved over millions of years to have thousands of unique compounds, some fast acting, potent, selective and stable; all characteristics scientists look for in drugs.
Overcoming arachnophobia in the process, Ms Nixon said spider venoms were one of the best to study because there were over 47,000 species of spiders on the planet, and less than 0.5 per cent of those were actually dangerous.
“Their venoms are also incredibly quite complex. Spiders can have over 1000 unique peptides in their venom, which is a type of biological molecule,” she said.
“So what you end up with when you work with spider venoms is a massive library of potential products for drug discovery that are probably safer to use than other venom sources.”
At a recent CSIRO event in Canberra, Ms Nixon was able to speak with representatives from Meat and Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Industry.
Scientist dreams of being voice for producers
Ms Nixon was a 2017 recipient of a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship in partnership with the University of Queensland.
The scholarship included up to $120,000 to put towards graduate research, as well as access to a leadership development program to help positively impact the lives of many Australians.
Ms Nixon said the scholarship had been fantastic in opening up new opportunities.
“Because of the funds I was able to go to Antartica as the youngest person on the largest ever all-women expedition with Homeward Bound this year,” she said.
“That was a program where they selected 80 women in science from around the world to go on a year-long leadership development program that culminated in a trip to Antarctica where we got to visit research stations and learn about climate change and science communication and how to influence policy.”
She said the scholarship had also given her a network of people in business and industry, and a visibility to start building her career.
“Westpac has a strong connection in agribusiness and farming, which is helping me open some doors,” she said.
“I would really like to work with farmers to learn from their experience with parasites to learn what they are currently doing, what they are facing and what they actually need in new drugs
“I think at the moment they lack a voice in that process.”
Ms Nixon now collaborates with the United States, Switzerland and throughout Australia.
Two weeks ago, at 24, Ms Nixon was runner up in the University of Queensland 3MT Competition with her “fight creepy with crawly” presentation.