Ant venom could ease pain

UQ researchers - Bull ant venom could lead to new pain treatments

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Giant red bull ants are known for inflicting pain, but their venom could help treat it.

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NO BULL: A new study on the venom of the giant red bull ant could pave the way for better treatments for pain. Photo: Dr Eivind Undheim and Dr Samuel Robinson.

NO BULL: A new study on the venom of the giant red bull ant could pave the way for better treatments for pain. Photo: Dr Eivind Undheim and Dr Samuel Robinson.

RESEARCHERS from the University of Queensland have completed the first comprehensive study of ant venom and say it could lead to improved pain treatments.

The team from the university’s Centre for Advanced Imaging and Institute for Molecular Bioscience studied the venom from the giant red bull ant, revealing toxins that stimulate the human nervous system to cause pain.

Eivind Undheim said the venom of bees and wasps had been the subject of research for decades, but there had been little research into ant venom.

“Ants are found on every inhabited continent on Earth and many of us are familiar with the sting their venom can produce,” Dr Undheim said.

“Our study revealed that the venom of the giant red bull ant is composed of a suite of peptide toxins and that these are closely related to those found in the venoms of bees and wasps.”

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE: Researchers say the ant's venom may provide insight into how to develop compounds that block pain. Photo: Dr Eivind Undheim and Dr Samuel Robinson.

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE: Researchers say the ant's venom may provide insight into how to develop compounds that block pain. Photo: Dr Eivind Undheim and Dr Samuel Robinson.

“This discovery suggests these toxins evolved from a common ancestor gene found across the Aculeata, or ‘stinging wasps’ part of the Hymenoptera order – which includes ants, bees, wasps and sawflies.”

Fellow researcher Samuel Robinson said revealing the chemistry behind animal stings could improve understanding of pain physiology and contribute to the development of new pain treatments.

“Venoms are complex mixtures of molecules that animals use to subjugate prey and defend themselves against predators,” Dr Robinson said.

He said defensive stings were particularly painful and contained toxins that directly targeted pain sensing neurons.

“That means we can use animal venoms to study the human nervous system and learn more about how pain travels through the body and how to develop compounds that block it,” he said.

Ants used in the study were collected from a single colony near Brisbane.

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