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World-First Box Jellyfish Sting Antidote Has Just Been Discovered

Australian researchers have unlocked an antidote for the world's most venomous creature -- the box jellyfish.

Researchers from the Charles Perkins Centre discovered the breakthrough while studying how the venom actually works in people's bodies.

The researchers were using CRISPR gene editing technology on human cells to figure out how the box jellyfish's venom causes such excruciating pain and damage.

By systematically 'switching off' certain genes in the human genome, the scientists could determine which genes were needed for the jellyfish venom to penetrate and kill cells. In doing so, researchers found cells with a certain combination of edited genes could withstand box jellyfish venom for two weeks.

Box jellyfish. Source: AAP

Ten genes were identified that the venom needed for its action pathways, with four of these part of the pathway that makes cholesterol in cells.

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Cholesterol has been a strong focus for researchers trying to understand cardiovascular issues for decades. A family of drugs called cyclodextrins has already been developed, which conveniently mimics the process that researchers used to stop the box jellyfish venom's actions.

Associate professor Greg Neely, one of the study's authors, said this is lucky because it means that millions of dollars in consumer research have already been spent on drug development.

"This drug is cheap and it's safe and it's used in humans for other situations," he told 10 daily.

Box jellyfish in Port Douglas. Source: Getty.

Cholesterol is needed in the cell wall to maintain permeability -- when it is removed temporarily, the cell can't be penetrated by the venom.

Cyclodextrins acts like a "cholesterol sponge", according to Neely and if it is applied within 15 minutes of a box jellyfish sting, then it blocks the venom attacking cells and travelling in the body.

While antivenom does exist for the box jellyfish sting -- made by combining sheep's blood with venom -- it only reaches its maximum effect 48 hours after injection. Being derived from sheep, it also runs the risk of causing allergic reactions.

Neely said a more immediate drug that can be administered and stop the venom from spreading through to the heart could be extremely useful -- particularly considering that humans can die within five to 10 minutes of being stung.

Box jellyfish, northern Queensland. Source: Getty.

In experimentation with mice, the cholesterol-absorbing drug has been shown to stop pain, tissue death, and scarring associated with the stings.

The researchers say it could also be developed into an injectable serum used in hospitals when people have been stung particularly severely.

The unique cube-shaped jellyfish is thought to have the world's most deadly sting. It injects victims extremely quickly, so that its tentacles aren't damaged.

The venom contains nematocysts, which are specialised coil-shaped cells that cause agonising pain to humans. The feeling is so intense that "irrational behaviour due to pain" is listed as one of the symptoms of stinging listed by the Queensland Ambulance Service.

The venom can kill humans by stopping breathing and causing cardiac arrest.

One of the foremost experts in jellyfish stings in Australia, Lisa-Ann Gershwin, told the ABC she suspects Queensland might see a rise in the number of box jellyfish and Irukandji stings in 2019, based on current weather trends and rainfall.