Angel Yanagihara, a researcher at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has developed a medicine that effectively treats the sting of a box jellyfish. Though the sting is usually just a painful nuisance in Hawaiʻi, it is deadly in places like Australia, Thailand and Indonesia. Yanagihara works for the university’s Pacific Biosciences Research Center and the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Her work was published in the December 2012 edition of PLOS ONE, the world’s most prestigious, open access, online scientific journal.
“What is extremely satisfying to me is to bring this 14-year hunt and work to a peer review end,” said Yahagihara.
That hunt started when Yanagihara, a biochemist, was severely stung by box jellyfish in 1997 while swimming near Waikīkī. That’s when she discovered that little was known about what causes the sting’s burning pain.
“They certainly brought the battle to an interested person,” said Yanagihara. “When I got stung, I got motivated.”
In 1998, Yanagihara identified a toxin in the venom that has since been found in all box jellyfish around the world. She soon discovered the toxin was the kinetic leader, or locomotive, that drives the venom. Her next discovery was a group of compounds that blocks the toxin’s effect on human blood cells and then came the tests on more than 300 laboratory mice.
“Just injecting the venom into the mice, cause death of a 100 percent of the animals within 20 minutes, whereas when we follow that up with the treatment, most of the animals, over 75 percent of them, survived the entire 12-hour observation period,” said Yanagihara, adding that the technology to treat the stings is being developed and may be on the market soon.
“Not only is it a technology that is applicable for life threatening stings, but also for our local burning stings,” said Yanagihara.
She said that this is just the beginning and that her research on box jellyfish could lead to breakthroughs on things like treating wounds and septic shock.
It is just another example of the impact UH can have on the state and the world.
“This is a real strong point of Hawaiʻi and the University of Hawaiʻi here at Mānoa,” said Yanagihara. “We have state of the state-of-the-art facilities so we can put together a community to address really unusual types of topics.”
Yanagihara and her team are still out on Waikīkī beach every month in the middle of the night collecting box jellyfish. She even became a certified scientific diver to study the creatures in their habitat.
“It is pretty scary,” said Yanagihara. “You know there are tiger sharks out there at 3 a.m. where you are diving. Anyway, it has been a magnificent kind of journey.”
She credits her success to her departments—the Pacific Biosciences Research Center and the UH medical school and colleagues from around the world, but says it is the funding from the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, which has been on board since the beginning, that really made a difference.
“So we were able to persevere and get to this point so all thanks go to HCF for their vision and their support of this work,” said Yanagihara.
Read the University of Hawaiʻi news release for more about Yanagihara’s discovery.
Editor’s note of December 13, 2012: Contrary to some media reports of this news story, this treatment is not an antivenom (i.e., antibody based approach) but a molecular blocker or inhibitor of pore formation. The treatment is zinc gluconate. There should be no confusion with other forms of zinc, such as zinc oxide, which is a different oxidative state of the metal or different forms of the counter ion gluconate.