CRISPR anti-venom: Antidote to world's most venomous sting made with gene editing

The toxin causes the blood pressure of its sting victims to sky-rocket if the venom isn't neutralized soon.

When you think 'venom', it's usually snake fangs that come to mind. But the most powerful venom in the world actually belongs to a species of box jellyfish, and now CRISPR gene editing technology has been used to create an antidote for it.

Box jellyfish are common in waters around Asia and Australia. The fact that they are so very transparent makes these near-invisible water animals hard to spot unless you're looking specifically for them. Their tentacles produce nematocysts, a toxin that sends the blood pressure of its victims sky-high if the sting isn't neutralized with an antidote in the first 20 minutes or so.

CRISPR anti-venom: Antidote to worlds most venomous sting made with gene editing

Box Jellyfish.

Chironex fleckeri is among the deadliest box jellyfish species, with an explosive sting that causes cardiac arrest in humans. Scientists are still unsure exactly how its venom works. But a team of researchers has managed to develop an antidote to block its venom using the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR.

CRISPR is a versatile tool that can be used to make precise edits to DNA in any living creature. The team was able to modify human DNA in these cells by turning a set of four genes off, after which the jellyfish venom was useless against it.

The genes were all part of a pathway the body uses to regulate cholesterol. These genes are what makes the box jellyfish venom so deadly and capable of destroying cells.

"The drug is known to work by pulling cholesterol out of the cell membrane, so we think the jellyfish venom needs membrane cholesterol to exert its effect," Greg Neely, lead author of the study, wrote in The Conversation. "By shutting down this pathway for a short period of time, we can shut down the venom death pathway."

Interestingly, there were some cholesterol drugs that were effective against the venom too, for upto 15 minutes after a poisonous sting.

The drug, cyclodextrin, is already tested safe for humans, cheap and readily available. It stops tissue death, scarring and pain completely when applied on the skin. But further studies will still need to be done to find out whether if it also stops a heart attack.

The team hopes to turn their discovery into a topical application of some kind that can be used soon after a box jellyfish sting. They also want to explore how a cardiac injection of the antivenom would work in an emergency room if the box jellyfish sting case is really severe.

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