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A new study reveals the pain relieving potential of venomous marine snails

Baldomero Olivera

Cone snails are marine snails that inhabit both shallow and deep waters in tropical oceans across the world. These animals are fierce predators that use a unique venom to subdue their prey. This venom consists of a diverse mixture of compounds—one of which, PRIALT, or Ziconotide, became an FDA approved drug in 2004.

Helena Safavi, a professor at the University of Utah and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and her team of researchers are dedicated to probing the venom of cone snails for other potential compounds to combat human disease. Safavi explained how a substance as harsh as venom can be used to improve human health.

“So we think of it as one animal killing another with a cocktail of toxins. But then the fact that each of these individual toxins does something very specific in the body of the prey, and that by studying that specific effect, we can learn a lot more about our own bodies, and potentially, hopefully, make better medicines and better drugs in the future,“ says Safavi.

A recent study published in the journal Science Advances by Safavi’s group have found a hormone-like compound in cone snail venom that effectively blocks pain in laboratory mice. Safavi explains the role this hormone may play for the predatory cone snails and its prey, fish.

“And so we think, in order to make sure that the fish does not escape, because it has just been stung, which is normally a painful sensation it would make sense to have some pain suppressing components in the venom.”

This hormone like drug they discovered looks and acts a lot like the human hormone somatostatin. In the human body somatostatin plays many important physiological roles, but it is highly unstable and therefore has limited use as a potential drug. Safavi describes how this cone snail compound is an improvement on somatostatin, and unlike somatostatin could be used as a drug.

“It looked like somebody had tried to make somatostatin into a drug. Make it smaller, make it highly stable, make it only do certain things in the body. As if the snail had come along and said, “I want to make something that acts like this hormone.” But it's much better than this hormone is.”

This compound has many steps to go before it could be approved for use in humans as a new pain therapeutic. But this work highlights the importance of continuing to probe the venom of creatures like cone snails for their hidden potential.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.