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An experimental drug made from snail venom
has shown early signs of promise in numbing pain, raising hopes in the hunt for new, non-addictive
medications, researchers said Sunday. The drug, which has not been tested yet on humans,
was judged to be about 100 times more potent than morphine or gabapentin, which are currently
considered the gold standard for chronic nerve pain.
The active ingredient, conotoxin, comes from carnivorous cone snails, which are common
in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. The marine animals can reach out and stab
prey, injecting a venom that paralyses fish long enough for the snail to eat it up. A
tiny protein derived from the snail’s venom has formed the basis of five new experimental
compounds, said lead researcher David Craik of the University of Queensland in Australia.
A preliminary study using one of these new compounds on lab rats “appeared to significantly
reduce pain,” said a press statement released ahead of Craik’s presentation at an American
Chemical Society meeting in Dallas, Texas. “This is an important incremental step that
could serve as the blueprint for the development of a whole new class of drugs capable of relieving
one of the most severe forms of chronic pain that is currently very difficult to treat,”
said Craik. Animal venoms are poisons that can block certain channels in the nervous
system, and act differently than opioid painkillers such as morphine and hydrocodone, which carry
the risk of addiction and death from overdose. Pharmaceutical companies have begun investigating
venoms in recent years as potential sources of new drugs for managing neuropathic pain,
which affects 15 per cent of the US population and can arise from cancer, AIDS, diabetes,
and other debilitating diseases. One conotoxin-derived drug, ziconotide, has already been approved
for human use. However, it is not available in pill form and must be infused directly
into the lower part of the spinal cord. The five new compounds Craik and colleagues are
developing would be taken orally. “We don’t know about side effects yet, as it hasn’t
been tested in humans. But we think it would be safe,” Craik said, adding that human trials
are at least two years away.

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