Bizarre Science: Cone Snails vs Morphine, who’s the stronger painkiller?

Cone snails are often recognised by scientists as dangerous and deadly animals as a result of their venomous spikes, used to harpoon their prey, paralyzing and then engulfing them whole.

Whilst this might sound daunting at first glance, scientists analysing the venom think it may hold the key to pain relief in humans and may even have the ability to help fight cancer. Mände Holford, an associate professor at Hunter College in New York, is leading this research. She observes the peptides and proteins found in the venom are suited to targeting specific sites in an organism, something that’s important when designing pain relief drugs. 

Ziconotide, a painkiller already derived from the snail venom, is over 1000 times more powerful than morphine. However, it can only be administered through the central nervous system, so work continues to be able to transport it across the blood-brain barrier. Additionally, Ziconotide also doesn’t cause addiction like opiate painkillers do, as it works on ion channels instead of opiate receptors. 

Holford also speaks of the benefits of the cone snail venom on impacting the growth of cancer cells. TV1, a peptide found in the venom, is effective at limiting the growth of liver cancer cells. Whilst Holford and her team work to understand the mechanism better, she is also optimistic that the cone snail may provide more solutions to help treat diseases and disorders, by giving new pathways and drugs to base further research on.

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George Barsted

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July 2021
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