| Decoding the secrets of platypus venom|
|A dead platypus found on a road is yielding venom that may one day help scientists design new pain killers.|
Molecular biologist Camilla Whittington has been granted a Fulbright Scholarship to analyse the components of the venom, which can cause severe pain.
"Once we know which one causes pain, then people can start to work to understand how it does that and then develop novel pain killers," says Whittington, a PhD student at the University of Sydney.
Venom from snakes have already yielded treatments for heart and blood problems, but very little is known about venom from mammals.
The platypus is one of only five mammals that produce venom. Whittington says the venom is injected by the male platypus, which has sharp spurs on each hind leg that can spring into action when the animal is attacked.
She says the venom causes extreme long-lasting pain and swelling that can be tricky to treat.
"We know morphine doesn't relieve the pain of envenomation so we're thinking there may be new pain pathways that are involved in causing the pain - ones that we haven't discovered yet," she says
"If we can work out what causes the pain, we can start to understand how it does that and then maybe work out how to block it."
But, she says, before that can happen a lot of basic research needs to be done.
Whittington says, so far only three components of platypus venom have been identified, including peptides related to antimicrobial peptides and nerve growth factors.
Interestingly, she says, available evidence suggests similar proteins have evolved twice, being found in both reptiles and platypus.
"We think it's an example of convergent evolution," says Whittington.
She says studies suggest there may be 50 compounds in platypus venom and her job is now to identify them all so they can then be tested further.
Later this year Whittington will begin a year-long research project analysing the venom at Washington University in St. Louis.
Roadkill delivers precious venom
Whittington says it is very difficult to obtain platypus venom because it's only produced in small quantities during the breeding season, and the animals are very hard to catch.
Even obtaining venom from captive animals is difficult since keepers often don't want to disturb the animals during breeding season.
Whittington says her team was lucky to have found a dead male platypus on the side of the road.
"We were fortunate enough to opportunistically collect an animal that was hit by a car in Tasmania," she says.
Whittington will amplify small amounts of RNA from the venom, and then sequence this to work out the proteins they code for.
"The RNA allows us to take a sample of venom gland tissue from one animal and amplify it and then sequence it from that," she says.
"So instead of taking a lot of venom samples from a large number of animals we can just take the venom gland from one animal to identify the components."
While in the US, Whittington will also study shrew venom, which she says has already been patented by others for anti-wrinkle, analgesic and treatment for nerve disorders.