Feature: The sting’s the thing

Dr. Angel Yanagihara

Dr. Angel Yanagihara

Angel Yanagihara knows first-hand the painful effects of Hawaiian box jellyfish stings. During a long-distance morning swim off Waikīkī Beach in July 1997, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa assistant research professor encountered a swarm of the nearly invisible jellyfish. She suffered multiple stings, resulting in immediate and excruciating pain, gasping and wheezing, and angry red welts—symptoms that took nearly three months to totally disappear.

That encounter changed the direction of Yanagihara’s research as a biochemist at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center. She was amazed to find that Australian Box jellies have the potential to kill an adult man in 5-20 minutes, yet there was no reliable antidote to the sting of these most primitive venomous animals on the planet. Yanagihara launched a mission to discover what makes the venom of the related but smaller Hawaiian box jelly such a potent stinging cocktail, with the hopes of finding a substance that would not simply treat the symptoms, but would stop the toxin after penetrating a victim’s skin.

To deconstruct the venom, Yanagihara systematically analyzed the components of box jellyfish venom and characterized their biological effects. She found that the blood-puncturing toxins not only led to red blood cell rupture, but also platelet depletion and white blood cell activation launching a profound inflammatory response called Irukandji Syndrome. “The greatest challenge in this research effort has been to ‘invent the wheel’ in developing analytical biochemical approaches,” said Yanagihara. “That capture the full suite of active components that comprise the venom contained in microscopic stinging cells.”

And then, in 2009, came success: The biochemist developed a blocker that worked in both human blood and a live animal model. “Our efforts to utilize biochemical tools to develop targeted therapeutics—to ultimately address the monthly pain and suffering that the local Hawaiian Box jellies inflict on swimmers—are finally coming to a tangible end point,” she said. Multiple patents have been submitted and a recent agreement was finalized with Waterlife Research of Maui, which plans to release a commercial product based on these findings within the next six months.

Yanagihara’s research was featured on a PBS NOVA documentary titled, “Venom,” which aired in February 2011. To view the entire episode, visit http://www.pbrc.hawaii.edu/. In addition, she and her husband, fellow UH Mānoa Professor Ric Yanagihara, are also featured on the BioMedical Faces of Science website at www.biomedicalfacesofscience.com.

For more information contact Angel Yanagihara at (808) 956-8328 or angel@pbrc.hawaii.edu.

Top photo: Hawaiian box jellyfish, courtesy of © Andre Seale / www.Artesub.com.

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