Could spiders save legs?

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Spinal cord injury can result in paralysis, pain and loss of sensation. Soon after injury, a process called ‘secondary damage’ begins, which manifests as prolonged cell death that extends past the initial insult. One contributor to this damage is an acid sensing receptor (acid sensing ion channel 1a), which is activated upon injury. Previous research revealed that inhibition of this receptor reduces secondary damage, which correlates with improved mobility in rodents. Our lab has discovered a small protein from spider venom called Hi1a which is an exceptionally potent inhibitor of this receptor. Hi1a reduces brain damage and improves recovery even when administered 8 hours after stroke. My research aims to determine whether Hi1a reduces tissue damage and improves functional outcomes after spinal cord injury. At crucial time points after injury, I will assess whether Hi1a reduces secondary damage,  improves mobility, and enhances cell-to-cell communication within the spinal cord.



Queensland boasts a beautiful coastline, with prime areas for surfing and other water related activities. Notably, however, 10% of spinal cord injuries result from water sports, so unfortunately Queenslanders have a risk of incurring one of these injuries. On top of this, rural regions of Queensland are often located great distances from major hospitals; thus, if an individual living in a regional area happens to damage their spinal cord, they may not reach a hospital until hours after the injury. Therefore, in our state, individuals may be more at risk of having a spinal cord injury, and the time required to receive treatment may be very long. Unfortunately, the longer it takes for a patient to get treated the worse the outcome and higher the chance of paralysis. Thus, rural Queenslanders may suffer a worse clinical outcome just due to the fact they live further away from hospitals.


My research aims to determine the potential of a small protein (peptide Hi1a) from the venom of the Fraser Island Funnel web for treatment of spinal cord injury. Thus, the primary benefit of my research is that it might lead to a treatment that prevents damage in spinal cord injury from spreading, and in turn provide a better outcome for patients. 


In previous research, Hi1a was shown to provide robust neuroprotection even when administered 8 hours after stroke in rodents. If Hi1a provides the same long treatment window with spinal cord injury, then we may have bought time for patients, especially those that live in remote areas that are located far from major hospitals. In my research, I am utilising an intravenous route of Hi1a administration that could be used by first responders. This would allow the drug to be delivered to patients “on site”, which should result in even better outcomes. This benefits Queenslanders who firstly may be more active in the sea, as well as those that live further from cities to be less negatively affected by spinal cord injuries.


During my PhD I have been involved in various STEM activities outside of my research. In November 2019 I presented a poster ‘Plasticity at the synapse after spinal cord injury:Altering excitatory post synaptic currents via ASIC1a inhibition’ at the Chemistry and Structural Biology (CASB) Division Symposium in the Institute for Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland.  I discussed my data which explores the communication of spinal cord cells and how this changes after an intervention. In May 2019 I presented a Pint of Sciencetalk on venoms to drugs as well as spinal cord communication to the general public at The Spotted Mallard in Melbourne. The audience were very engaged by my presentation, and I spent 15 minutes answering questions after the talk. In 2019 I attended a ‘Media and Communication Training Course’ with Science in Public; I was awarded a place in this course after winning the ‘Meet The Press’ pitch at RMIT University in 2018. I was a tour guide to school groups at ‘Life, magnified: using light microscopy to investigate biology and disease’ during National Science week, 2018 at the Bio21 Institute in  Melbourne. During this tour I also presented a poster showing my work on fluorescent staining of immune cells in spinal cord tissue. I have been involved in the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) as a mentee, 2018–2019. I was a UQ 3 Minute Thesis presenter at The Institute for Molecular Biosciences in 2018. Finally, I will be an MC this year at the Pint of Science festival in Brisbane.



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Miss Victoria Sophie Foster, MSci, The University of Queensland Spinal cord injury can dramatically impact a persons’ function and quality of life, and may result in paralysis or symptoms such a...

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