Super powerful pain relief is on the horizon, but the unusual source may surprise or even shock you. Cone shell, or sea snail, venom’s potency and complexity have prompted scientists to investigate and duplicate its medicinal benefits. Before the prospect of taking a toxic drug scares you away, consider that Lisinopril, a common ACE inhibitor, originated from a Brazilian snake’s poisonous venom. Now new research indicates that conotoxins, or cone snail venom, may be the next innovative chronic nerve pain solution.
Test Your Cone Snail Knowledge
You may be familiar with cone snail shells that people have collected throughout the ages. Rembrandt even immortalized their fascinating shape in a 1650 etching. But don’t let their beauty fool you. Each of the 600-plus cone snail species inhabiting the world’s dwindling coral reefs produces approximately 50 toxins that make its venom poisonous. Every snail is able to alter the compounds in its venom naturally. Over millions of years, these marine mollusks have evolved around 50,000 toxins that target certain species in specific environments.
These fish-eating snails’ pointed tongues harpoon their prey like hypodermic needles. They secure meals by pumping their venom into fish, mollusks and worms. The toxins that spread through their victims’ bodies have an immobilizing effect, and prey’s chance of survival is virtually zero. If snail venom were a human threat, just one sting would be strong enough to kill 15 people.
How Predators Are Becoming Healers
The medical community is interested in cone snails because they have the world’s fastest-mutating genes. Theirs change five times more quickly than the highest mammal mutation rate. Each unique toxin is the source of a potential new human drug. Scientists are studying how every conotoxin affects its victim. The results are improving their understanding of how cells, including ones that make up the nervous system, interact and communicate.
Snail venom retrieval, or milking, is a tricky and potentially dangerous process. Scientists entice a captive cone snail with live goldfish so it will harpoon a condom-covered test tube opening. After identifying and analyzing the venom’s compounds, they synthesize it to minimize the necessity of future milking.
Patients have received Prialt (ziconotide), the first cone snail venom pain reliever, since 2004. Researchers estimate this non-addictive drug, based on the delicate gray and ivory magician cone snail’s venom, is a thousand times stronger than morphine, the most powerful traditional painkiller. Because this formulation is susceptible to enzyme breakdown in saliva and the stomach, administration is by spinal injection only. A doctor inserts a special pump surgically and injects the painkiller into the fluid surrounding the patient’s spinal cord. The drug blocks nerve channels that transmit pain. Research found conotoxins also improve other conditions including epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and strokes. However, this treatment is invasive and expensive.
Fortunately, Australian scientists have developed another solution. A University of Queensland team is testing the first orally active enzyme-resistant conotoxin drug. David Craik, Ph.D., who led the study, explained that acute pain occurs when a wound or injury stimulates the nervous system. However, chronic neuropathic pain strikes when diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases damage the nervous system. Patients can suffer for months, years or decades. Craik and his colleagues found that a single oral dose of their synthetic conotoxin reduced neuropathic pain significantly in rats.
The Future of Pain Management
Scientists have studied less than one percent of cone snails, so conotoxin-based medication research and development have just begun. Human clinical trials of this new super-potent oral drug may begin in the next few years, so look for one in your area. Until it becomes available, your doctor may prescribe Neurontin (Gabapentin).