The fearsome box jellyfish packs venom that is among the deadliest in
the world, but a new treatment may take the sting out of its powerful
poison, according to a new study.
The study researchers found that a zinc-based compound prevented death
in mice injected with box-jellyfish venom. The compound — zinc
gluconate, a nutritional supplement — seems to work by preventing
certain ions (charged particles) that keep the heart beating from
leaking out of blood vessels.
If follow-up studies confirm the benefits in larger animals, the compound could one day be used to prevent people from dying of jellyfish stings.
Anecdotal evidence looks promising: A topical version of the compound
was used to reduce the pain and swelling of a jellyfish sting received
by Diana Nyad in August during her attempt to swim the 103 miles (166
kilometers) between Florida and Cuba.
Snakes, insects, fish and even lizards use venom to defend themselves or take down prey, but the sting of the Australian box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) may be the most deadly: A single creature carries enough venom in its tentacles to kill 60 people.
"These are the most venomous animals in the world based upon fatalities
over the last 30 years," said study author Angel Yanagihara, a
biochemist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
float in the waters from Australia all the way to Vietnam. The ethereal
creatures can sport 6.5-foot (2-meter)-long, ribbonlike tentacles that
often attach to swimmers or scuba divers and inject venom through
hundreds of thousands of microscopic, harpoonlike barbs, Yanagihara
"All that venom then seeps into the bloodstream. With each beat of your
heart it's being pumped around your circulatory system," she said.
The deadly stings can kill quickly by causing cardiac arrest. Until
now, doctors had no effective treatments to counteract the venom.
Instead, they would treat a cascade of symptoms, such as high or low
blood pressure, and hope for the best, she said.
"It's usually a race against time where the clinician is treating symptoms as they crop up," Yanagihara told LiveScience.
Past work had shown the venom contained a chemical that creates
ringlike structures that attach to blood vessels, creating tiny holes in
them and making them leaky; exactly what was leaking out remained a
To find out, Yanagihara and her colleagues drew blood from humans, sheep, rats and mice, and mixed the samples with the jellyfish venom. The scientists then used electrical measurements to track the chemicals seeping out of the cells.
The team found that potassium ions were oozing out of red blood cells
into plasma, the yellowish fluid in which blood cells float. The team
concluded that a steep drop in potassium inside blood cells prevented
heart muscle cells from beating properly. (The heart and other muscles
require a difference in the levels of potassium inside and outside cells
to generate force).
The pores also reminded Yanagihara of similar structures found in
bacteria. By studying scientific experiments dating back as far as the
1880s, she found that scientists used zinc to prevent these bacterial
pores from assembling. The similarity made her wonder whether zinc could
be used to take the deadly sting out of box jellyfish venom.
To test that theory, the researchers gave two groups of mice venom injections, but one was administered a follow-up dose of zinc gluconate,
a supplement routinely used to boost the zinc levels of premature
babies. While all the mice injected just with jellyfish venom died
within an hour, about half that also received the zinc treatment
survived for the duration of the experiment.
The findings suggest that the zinc works by preventing blood cells from
oozing potassium. If similar results are seen in follow-up studies, the
supplement could be given as a treatment for unlucky people who
encounter the deadly creatures while swimming or surfing.
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