Tiny venomous snail could lead us to non-addictive painkillers

tiny venomous snail

Published in the journal PNAS is a study wherein scientists have described how compounds from a tiny venomous snail called Conus regius are so lethal that they can not only paralyse but also kill its prey.

These properties of the venom could be used for our benefit as scientists say that this snail could help us develop better painkillers that could replace highly addictive opioids. Researchers at University of Utah have found a compound that blocks pain by targeting a pathway not associated with opioids. Study on rodents indicates that the benefits continue long after the compound has cleared the body.

The opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions. Opioids is highly addictive and according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. The medical community is in need of alternative therapies that do not rely on the opioid pathways to relieve pain.

“Nature has evolved molecules that are extremely sophisticated and can have unexpected applications. We were interested in using venoms to understand different pathways in the nervous system,” said Baldomera Olivera, professor at the University of Utah.

The small marine cone snail is common to the Caribbean Sea and packs a venomous punch, capable of paralysing and killing its prey. Researchers found that a compound isolated from snail’s venom, Rg1A, acts on a pain pathway distinct from that targeted by opioid drugs.

Using rodent models, the scientists showed that a9a10 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) functions as a pain pathway receptor and that RgIA4 is an effective compound to block this receptor. The pathway adds to a small number of nonopioid-based pathways that could be further developed to treat chronic pain. The duration of pain relief is long, greatly outlasting the presence of the compound in the animal’s system.

The compound works its way through the body in 4 hours, but the scientists found the beneficial effects lingered.

The duration of the outcome may suggest that the snail compound has a restorative effect on some components of the nervous system.

The researchers will continue to the next step of pre-clinical testing to investigate the safety and effectiveness of a new drug therapy.