For the one in five Australians of working age suffering from serious chronic pain, the options for relief are strictly limited. There’s morphine and . . . well, there’s morphine. But now one of the most powerful toxins in the natural world—the venom of marine cone snails—offers hope of a future free of pain and addiction, say researchers at RMIT University.
“The big problems with morphine are addictiveness and the fact that people develop a tolerance to it,” says Professor David Adams, director of the RMIT Health Innovations Research Institute. “With the painkillers derived from cone snail venom, we don’t have those problems. People don’t develop tolerance, and they don’t get hooked.
“Also, there’s a wide safety margin. With morphine, there’s little room for error. If you overdose, you’re likely to die. But with the venom peptides, there may be side-effects but you will survive.”
David leads research into the cocktail of peptides—fragments of protein—with which the cone snail paralyses its prey. “These peptides have exquisite selectivity for their molecular targets,” he says. So his team is geared to developing new treatments for chronic nerve-based pain by discovering and purifying peptides that target particular pain receptors.
Worldwide, there are more than 700 species of cone snails, about two-thirds of which are found in the Great Barrier Reef. Each species’ venom contains between 100 and 200 unique peptides—more than 100,000 different peptides overall, of which fewer than 100 have been classified.
It’s a huge enterprise, and the RMIT researchers collaborate internationally with groups in the US, Canada and Belgium. “There are many other possibilities for cone snail venom, such as treatments for cardiovascular conditions,” David says.
Photo: Cone snails may offer pain relief
Health Innovations Research Institute, RMIT University, David Adams, Tel: +61 3 9925 6606, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rmit.edu.au/research/institutes/healthinnovations