A peptide from an Australian funnel-web spider has been found to kill both human melanoma cells and cancerous Tasmania devil facial tumours that are threatening the survival of the species.

The research, started at Brisbane’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, also found that the funnel-web compound had almost no negative effects on surrounding healthy cells in either case.

The peptide, a compound consisting of two or more amino acids, was extracted from the venom gland but researchers are still trying to determine whether it is from the spider’s venom or blood.

Maria Ikonomopoulou, who is now based in Spain conducting independent research, started her work at QIMR Berghofer before moving to Europe.

“We decided to test this spider [funnel-web] compound because it was very similar in chemical composition to a compound from a Brazilian spider, which was already known to have anti-cancer properties, although it had never been tested in devil facial tumour cells,” Dr Ikonomopoulou said.

“When we tested the Australian spider peptide on human melanoma cells in the laboratory, it killed the majority of them. We also found the peptide slowed the growth of melanomas in mice”.

“We also found that the Australian funnel-web spider peptide was better at killing melanoma cancer cells and stopping them from spreading, than the Brazilian spider peptide”.

“I have always been interested in the Tasmanian devil and had been trying to find a new drug to combat the facial disease, so I tested the funnel-web peptide and found it was really potent”.

“Because it specifically kills the cancerous cells in the Tasmanian devil, it can be explored as a potential new drug that could be used to protect the species”.

“We’ve only done preliminary tests and we need to do more work on it, such as testing it on different types of cancer and tumours in the hope it can be put forward as a drug candidate.”

Dr Ikonomopoulou said the results were exciting and offered a significant platform for finding more drug compounds.

“The melanoma research is not groundbreaking on a global scale, but it is very interesting to find an Australian spider that has good potential to explore,” she said.

“The Tasmanian devil research is groundbreaking, I don’t think anyone has looked at peptides as a potential source for new drugs for the facial tumours before”.

The study was also led by fellow QIMR Berghofer researcher Manuel Fernandez-Rojo, along with collaborators from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland.