Entry for:2020 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
I overcame arachnophobia to use spider venoms to make new drugs against parasites. Parasitic worms cost the Australian sheep industry over $435 million each year and show resistance to all available drugs. Parasitic worms threaten over 1 billion people, causing greater disability burden than even HIV-AIDS. New antiparasitic drugs are urgently needed to protect both people and the Australian sheep industry. Spider venoms evolved over millions of years to become cocktails of molecules with potential as new drugs. I tested over 250 venoms against major human and veterinary parasites, finding venoms active against every parasite tested. I then find the active molecules and synthesise them, studying how they work and ensuring that they are safe. I found compounds from Queensland funnel-web spiders and tarantulas which are active against major sheep and human parasitic worms, showing for the first time that spider venoms are a potential new source of antiparasitic drugs.
The Australian sheep industry exports over $5 billion worth of wool and meat each year, but loses over $435 million to gastrointestinal worms. One of the most serious infections is the Barber’s Pole Worm, a blood-feeding gut worm. Heavy infections can drain sheep of as much as 10% of their blood each day. This hinders sheep production and causes anaemia, pain and can be rapidly fatal. Worm control has relied upon drugs called anthelmintics, but the Australian sheep industry is now threatened by widespread multi-drug resistance. Resistance to multiple drugs was reported in Queensland sheep farms in 2014, severely compromising Queensland farmers’ ability to control these infections. New drugs are urgently needed to protect both Australia’s sheep and our farmers’ livelihoods.
My research harnesses the natural products in spider venoms to make new drugs against these parasites. I use spider venoms because over 99% of spider species are harmless to humans and their venoms have evolved to become complex mixtures of compounds with drug-like properties. I co-ordinate an international team of research labs across Australia, Switzerland and the USA in the first large-scale research program testing venoms against parasites. Through this work we have identified spider venom compounds active against Australian sheep parasites—including a peptide from a Queensland funnel-web spider.
Parasites are also a huge threat to other livestock, companion animals and humans. Worldwide, parasites actually comprise the largest group of the neglected tropical diseases. We have been able to apply our discoveries from sheep parasites to parasites of cats, dogs and humans. We have identified a number of spider venom molecules in preclinical development with activity against parasites, including the causative species of the major neglected tropical diseases Lymphatic Filariasis and Schistosomiasis. This is the first time that spider venoms have been shown to have activity against these parasites, opening up a new area of potential drug discovery.
As part of this work, I studied under the leading parasitologists in Switzerland and France, learning unique skills in parasitology and drug discovery to bring back to Australia to enhance our scientific knowledge and strengthen our resilience against parasites. I have also studied at the world’s largest veterinary pharmaceutical company, Zoetis, Michigan, USA, building connections between Queensland research and American industry and learning how to translate and commercialise our discoveries to support Queensland farmers.
Finally, I also study the biochemistry of the spider venoms to understand how they work and what medical impacts the venoms may have on people and animals. This helps to inform us about the biology of the spiders, identify new toxins that may be potentially dangerous, and identify new venom molecules with additional medical and biotechnological applications beyond antiparasitic drug discovery.
I never imagined myself as a scientist—let alone of spiders and blood-sucking parasites. I overcome my arachnophobia because I was fascinated by how the molecules in spider venoms could help solve medical challenges, particularly parasites. I communicate my research to help other people learn to appreciate spiders, advocate for parasitic diseases and inspire the next-generation of Australian scientists.
Since 2017, I have spoken to over 1000 primary school students in Brisbane and regional Queensland schools through direct partnerships with local State Schools, National Science Week and the Wonder of Science program. Growing up, I lacked science role models and firmly believe that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Hence, I focus my work with public primary schools to help foster education equity for students who can’t readily access real world scientists. I also work with children’s media to communicate my spider science nationally. I have had guest appearances on Channel 10’s children’s science program Scope (episode ‘Blood Worms’ and ‘Science of Stings’) and Totally Wild. My article in The Conversation Curious Kids answering ‘Why spiders need so many eyes?’ lead to a Brisbane kids’ science workshop and was selected as one of the 50 best articles for 2019 and subsequently published in The Conversation Yearbook. I have also interviewed with children’s publications such as Science and Nature magazine UK and Crinkling News. At the 2020 World Science Festival Brisbane I will speak at a workshop encouraging kids to study STEM about spiders and how I became a scientist. Working with children and inspiring their curiosity for spiders and science is my favourite part of my work.
I also engage the public more broadly to encourage people to appreciate spiders. In 2020, I put a call out looking for spiders to help support our venoms research. This received national coverage on ABC news online and radio (Brisbane Breakfast and Radio National), Channel 7’s Weekend Sunrise, Channel 9’s The Today Show and Channel 10’s Totally Wild. This led to over 300 people engaging with the biodiversity in their own backyards and contacting me about spiders that they have found.
I also use social media, mainstream media and outreach events to advocate for both spiders and increase the visibility of parasitic diseases to a variety of audiences. It is critical that we as scientists engage directly with the communities affected by parasitic diseases, so I work with rural focused media (The Land, Rural Weekly and ABC’s Country Hour and Regional Drive Radio) to communicate to Australian sheep farmers. More broadly, I speak at outreach events like Pint of Science (2017—2019) and was the overall runner-up for the 2018 University of Queensland Three Minute Thesis competition. I have also been profiled by The Guardian, Courier Mail, Sunday Mail, Channel 7’s The Morning Show and written popular science articles for Australasian Science and Royal Australian Chemical Institute Magazine. I hope that my outreach will show people how serious parasitic diseases are and how spiders are really the creepy-crawlies who help us.
Samantha is a former arachnophobic turned venoms scientist and spider advocate. She is a final year PhD student at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland and CSIRO. He...