A recent study lead by Australian researcher has shown that proteins discovered in Cone Snail venom could potentially prove to be a stronger pain killer than morphine, and have fewer side effects and lower risk of abuse.
Cone Snails, known as one of the world's most deadly sea creatures, are predatory marine snails with harpoon-like teeth. The snail uses these teeth to inject its toxic venom into prey. The venom, known as conotoxins, blocks the channels in which chemical signals travel from nerves to muscles. When the channels of communication are blocked, paralysis occurs.
The conotoxins contain various amino acids, as well as alpha helices and beta sheets commonly found in larger proteins. Thus, the conotoxins are known as “mini proteins”.
Researchers say they have developed at least five new experimental substances derived from the proteins found in the Cone Snail’s venom. According to University of Queensland's David Craik, the lead researcher of the study, the research has shown that conotoxins appear to have analgesic effects in humans. Thus far, only one conotoxin-derived medication has been approved for use in human, and it requires the substance to be infused directly into the lower part of the spinal cord.
However, Craik and his team of researchers are working on developing an oral medication which eliminates the need for invasive spinal injections. In previous studies, the researchers have been able to modify the conotoxin peptides so they form circular chains of amino acids. In studies using laboratory rats, these modified conotoxins appeared to significantly reduce pain. Based on those results, Phys.org reports the team believes the prototype drug is about 100 times more potent than morphine or gabapentin, the two drugs that are considered the "gold standard" treatments for chronic nerve pain.
Researchers also believe that since the conotoxins work on different brain receptors than morphine and other opiate drugs, addiction is less of a concern.
While scientists agree more research is needed, Craik is very optimistic about the possibilities, sayingWe don't know about side effects yet, as it hasn't been tested in humans. But we think it would be safe. 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.