The pursuit of a cure for her father's illness brought Elizabeth Mule to a place where arachnophobes fear to tread -- Fred Sachs' laboratory on the University at Buffalo's South Campus on Main Street.
There, the 10-year-old New Orleans resident came eyeball to eyeball Thursday with Rose, a 30-year-old tarantula and the lab's unofficial mascot.
They hit it off immediately. Elizabeth gently lifted the docile, furry creature from a glass cage and lightly stroked her back with an extended index finger. Because her hands are not yet quite large enough, the child could not cup her palm to let Rose -- as these spiders are wont to do -- nestle in on her backside, legs folded up, and submit to a tummy rub. Providing a hand hammock for Rose was left to Elizabeth's mother, Susan.
Their journey to Buffalo was the result of extensive e-mail correspondence between Elizabeth and Sachs, a biophysics professor whose research on tarantula venom unexpectedly yielded a compound called a peptide that may someday be used to treat muscular dystropy, atrial fibrillation and incontinence.
Elizabeth, whose lawyer dad, Michael, experienced congestive heart failure because of atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, was searching the Internet for information about the condition when she came across Sachs' name.
An article in the July issue of the journal Nature detailed how his research team purified the peptide and plans to use a $900,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation to find ways to develop treatments.
Elizabeth e-mailed Sachs asking for help for her dad, and the Louisiana advocate and the Buffalo researcher soon became cyber pals.
"She's a delightful kid -- just what you look for in the next generation of scientists," Sachs said.
Ever since she fell in love with spiders at age 3, her mother said, Elizabeth "has been interested in changing their image" -- especially tarantulas, which Hollywood turned into B-movie monsters. She decided to become a breeder, and there are now 60 of the critters in the Mule (pronounced Moo-LAY) household.
There is little to fear from tarantulas, as Elizabeth and Sachs were eager to point out. The venom serves to disable prey -- say, a cricket or a mouse -- and only enough is dispensed to do the job. "The bigger the spider, the less venom is injected, because they're powerful enough to get what they want," Sachs said. If a human is bitten -- usually after irritating the animal -- the effect is comparable to a bee sting.
Sachs, who flew Elizabeth and her mom here to meet his favorite Chilean rose tarantula and update them on his research, said the lab has no other live specimens. It experiments with venom from an Arizona spider farm.
Lately, Elizabeth and her pets have gone on the television talk-show circuit -- Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres -- to raise awareness, but the focus has been on her spider-handling skills rather than on the crusade to help her dad.
"In her words, they wanted her to be a cute kid showing off tarantulas," Sachs said.
She got a sympathetic reception in the Cary Hall lab but learned that despite the peptide's great promise, a drug to treat atrial fibrillation and other illnesses may be years off.
Sachs' team is talking with pharmaceutical companies, but thus far no agreement has been reached to begin clinical trials.
"We're sitting right at the edge of the first therapy for muscular dystrophy," the scientist said.
Susan Mule, whose husband is back at work after heart surgery, is confident that her daughter's campaign for a cure eventually will be rewarded. "It's only a matter of time," she said.