The 31st January 2011, marks the 30 year anniversary of the day that the first funnel web spider bite victim was saved with the anti-venom that was supplied to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories by the Australian Reptile Park. Gordon Wheatley, an engineer from Sydney, trod on a male funnel web spider in his living room whilst changing a light bulb late that night.
One of the important functions of the Australian Reptile Park, famous for being an award winning tourist attraction, is the collection of venom from the deadly funnel web spider. The venom is used by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) to manufacture lifesaving anti-venom and the Reptile Park is the sole supplier of the venom. To keep up the supply of venoms, highly trained staff of the Australian Reptile Park regularly 'milk' more than 200 spiders that are included in the program.
The anti-venom was developed by a team of scientists led by the late Doctor Struan Sutherland, Head of Immunology at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. The Australian Reptile Park began supplying the CSL with funnel web venom in 1970 and Robyn Weigel, who is still owner of the Reptile Park remembers that pioneering the removal of venom to supply to CSL was protracted and laborious. “We finally progressed to suction, but prior to that, held our finger over a pipette to draw out the venom” she recalls.
The breakthrough came in 1980 when Dr Sutherland proved that his anti-venom reversed poisoning in monkeys, the only other animal affected by the spider’s venom. The first batch of anti-venom was approved for manufacture and clinical trial only 30 days prior to Gordon Wheatley being bitten. Mr Wheatley, who now resides on the NSW south coast, was the first to receive the anti-venom and there have been no further deaths from funnel-web spider bites since the advent of this medication. Prior to this, the funnel web spider had caused numerous fatalities in NSW. Although funnel-web spiders are widely distributed throughout the south eastern Australia, including Tasmania, the only species so far proven to be dangerous to humans are largely limited to the eastern part of New South Wales and southeast Queensland. The only known killer is the Sydney funnel-web spider, which is found mostly in the Sydney region, north to Newcastle and south to the Illawarra region.
A simple explanation of how the anti-venom is produced is that extremely small amounts of funnel web venom are injected into rabbits on a regular basis over a long period of time. The amounts are so small that the rabbits are not affected and produce antibodies to counteract the foreign substance in its system. After this immunological ‘conditioning’ is complete, a small proportion of each rabbit’s blood is removed and the plasma is extracted. This plasma contains the antibodies which, when injected into a funnel web spider bite victim, will neutralise venom. These animals suffer no ill-effects and are used repeatedly to help save human lives in this fashion. The funnel web spider program at the Australian Reptile Park depends largely upon the provision of male specimens from the area within 150 km of Sydney.
A fascinating Funnel web milking can be witnessed daily at the Australian Reptile Park. A special show is held in Spider World at 9.45am where a spider keeper milks the spider and provides information about the species and the program. The funnel-web spider program at the Park depends largely upon the provision of male specimens from the area within 150 km of Sydney and drop off points can be found in Sydney, Newcastle and the Central Coast.