A protein in the venom of potentially deadly funnel web spiders could minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke, researchers in Australia said on Tuesday.
Strokes claim six million lives worldwide each year, and five million survivors are left with a permanent disability.
Scientists from the University of Queensland and Monash University said spider venom was always a good place to look for proteins to help in medical treatments as they have evolved to target the nervous systems of insects.
Lead researcher Glenn King told AFP this led them to see what they could find in funnel webs, which carry one of the world's most dangerous toxins.
Three were caught on Fraser Island on the Queensland coast and taken back to the lab to be milked.
This involved administering an electric charge to their fangs, causing the muscles to contract and the venom to be squeezed out.
"The small protein we discovered, Hi1a, blocks acid-sensing ion channels in the brain, which are key drivers of brain damage after stroke," he said after injecting a synthetic version into rats.
"We believe that we have, for the first time, found a way to minimise the effects of brain damage after a stroke."
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with King saying the small protein showed great promise as a future treatment.
"One of the most exciting things about Hi1a is that it provides exceptional levels of protection for eight hours after stroke onset, which is a remarkably long window of opportunity for treatment," he said.
"Hi1a even provides some protection to the core brain region most affected by oxygen deprivation, which is generally considered unrecoverable due to the rapid cell death caused by stroke."
Royal Melbourne Hospital Brain Centre director Stephen Davis said the pre-clinical work was encouraging.
"A safe and effective neuroprotectant could be given in the ambulance to most stroke patients before hospital arrival and enable many more stroke victims to be treated," he said.
"The next step is to determine whether these very encouraging results can be translated into successful human benefits in clinical trials."
King said he hoped human trials would be possible within two years.