Australian Researchers Discover A Powerful Pain Killer In Sea Snail Venom

Substances derived from cone snail venom, one of the deadliest, could lead to better treatments for chronic nerve pain. Credit: Dr. Bruce Livett and David Paul

Australian researchers have discovered that venom from marine cone snails could potentially be stronger than morphine as a painkiller, with fewer side effects and lower risk of abuse.

“This is an important incremental step that could serve as the blueprint for the development of a whole new class of drugs capable of relieving one of the most severe forms of chronic pain that is currently very difficult to treat,” said Dr David Craik of the University of Queensland.

He is due to deliver the results of his study to the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, in Dallas, Texas, this week.

Craik said acute pain occurs when the nervous system is stimulated by a wound or injury and naturally subsides over time. In contrast, chronic neuropathic pain kicks in when the nervous system itself is damaged.

This type of pain — which is often triggered by diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases — can last for months, years or even decades.

Current treatments for have serious side effects and provide relief to only about one in every three patients, he said.

One possible solution comes from the cone snail, marine animals which use venom to paralyse their prey. This venom contains hundreds of peptides (small proteins) known as conotoxins.

But in humans some of these conotoxins appear to have analgesic effects. The team is working to develop a conotoxin-based drug that can be taken orally.

In laboratory rats, a single, small oral dose of a prototype drug based appeared to significantly reduce pain. Based on this research, the scientists concluded that this prototype drug was about 100 times more potent than morphine or gabapentin, “gold standard” drugs for chronic nerve pain.

Addiction is less of a concern, Craik said, because conotoxins act on different receptors in the brain than morphine and other opiate drugs.

“We don’t know about side effects yet, as it hasn’t been tested in humans. But we think it would be safe,” Craik said. “It acts by a completely different mechanism than morphine so we think it has a minimal possibility of producing the side effects of that medication. That is one of the big advantages of this drug.”

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