There aren’t too many upsides to high cholesterol but research at The University of Sydney has discovered a surprising new one.
Medication that controls the disease might also protect against one of the world’s deadliest animals.
The tentacles of some varieties of box jellyfish contain a powerful venom that can kill as little as two minutes after contact with skin.
Box jellyfish found in Australia’s northern waters are known to have caused the deaths of at least 64 people since the 1880s.
Even in non-fatal cases the pain can be agonising and last for several days, often leaving heavy scarring as well.
The venom works by breaking down human cells, potentially causing heart failure.
Until now, the most effective treatment has been vinegar, which paralyses undischarged stingers in a tentacle, allowing their removal without further poisoning.
Vinegar is no antidote, however. It does nothing to prevent or reverse damage caused by venom already released into the body.
Traditionally the only option has been to carefully disengage the tentacle and hope for the best but researchers at the University of Sydney were determined to do better.
Using a special gene editing technique, they created venom-proof cells in the lab. That helped them understand which genes must be blocked with medicine to protect real humans on the beach.
As it turned out, the genes which allowed box jellyfish venom to enter the body were the same ones responsible for transferring cholesterol.
Associate Professor Greg Neely says the results were exciting because the team knew there were plenty of drugs to stop cholesterol already.
“We found these drugs could completely block the box jellyfish venom’s ability to kill human cells in the lab if added before venom exposure,” he says.
“We also found there is a 15-minute window after venom exposure where … it still blocks venom action.”
The team is now developing a skin treatment for first aid as well as a heart injection for emergency rooms.
“The really cool thing about this work is that the potential box jellyfish antidote we found is in a family of drugs [that] are known to be safe for humans and are cheap and stable.”