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Marine Animal Venom Studied for Pain Drugs

Textile cone snail

Textile cone snail (Richard Ling, Wikimedia Commons)

29 November 2017. A medical research team is investigating the chemistry in venom from snail-like marine animals to discover natural alternative drugs for pain. The four-year project at University of Utah in Salt Lake City is funded by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Researchers led by biologist Baldomero Olivera are seeking new compounds from nature that address chronic pain, for which opioid drugs are often the only option available today. Opioids work by reducing the intensity of pain signals to the brain, particularly regions of the brain controlling emotion, which reduces effects of the pain stimulus. But by binding to receptors in the brain affecting emotions, opioids can also drive up dopamine levels, creating an addiction. A report from the National Academies in July 2017 says as of 2015, some 2 million Americans age 12 and over are addicted to prescription opioid drugs.

The Utah team is looking into the venom created by snails and similar marine organisms as a source for new compounds that address chronic pain. Olivera’s lab studies the venom produced by conus or cone snails, a predatory species of mollusk, and so far identified more than 100,000 chemically active peptides in their venom. Many of these peptides, short chains of amino acids similar to proteins, target pathways and receptors in the nervous system to numb or stun their prey. The lab’s work already led to a powerful chronic pain drug, ziconotide, marketed as Prialt by Jazz Pharmaceuticals.

In February 2017, a team led by Olivera and Utah psychiatry professor J. Michael McIntosh published a study of venom from the conus regius snail found in the Caribbean as an alternative to opioids. In tests with lab rodents, the researchers found a compound in the venom used a pathway different from opioids to block pain receptors. One notable finding from the study was pain relief from the compound continued for 72 hours, well after it cleared the bodies of test animals.

“Pain is not a disease,” says Utah biology research professor Russell Teichert in a university statement. ““It is an important sensory response. Our intent is not to block pain, but to block abnormal neuropathic pain, especially if it becomes chronic.” Teichert joins Olivera and McIntosh on the research team.

In the new project, the Utah team is evaluating venom from a number of marine mollusk species, not just cone snails, for sources of natural alternative pain drugs. The researchers are first identifying new targets for pain drugs, followed by compilation and screening of compounds from these marine organisms for candidates that prevent or relieve chronic pain. The team will then advance the best prospects through preclinical testing and eventually clinical trials.

The following video tells more about the project.

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