Researchers from Florida Atlantic University have discovered that the venom of cone snails may be used to treat some forms of cancer and nicotine addiction.
The cone snail differs vastly from the ones found underfoot on a rainy day; they are in fact marine molluscs like squid, octopuses and conch, and are found along the Florida coast. In another stark difference to the common garden snail they utilise their venom to immobilise and capture prey.
The venom contains a number of components which are of interest due to their effect on the body. One of these is alpha-contoxins, which are selective for the nictotinic receptors of the body. Nicotinic receptors are associated with certain forms of cancer, nicotine addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia, making them ideal targets for drugs.
The researchers, led by Dr Frank Marí, had a specific interest in Conus regius, a species of cone snail that produces venom which is high in alpha-contoxins. While investigating the venom they identified RegIIA, which is specific for the nicotinic receptor: alpha-3-beta-4, which is associated with lung cancer and nicotine addiction when activated.
The hope is that compounds with similar structures having the same activity at alpha-3-beta-4 as RegIIA can be produced.
Frank Marí outlined the goals of the study: “To open new avenues for cancer and addiction research inspired on compounds from marine animals”. This is concurrent with the present trend in pharmaceutical research, with many companies and researchers turning to nature for compounds. From this point they then compose a structure activity relationship study to ascertain what features of the compounds are needed for their activity and can create synthetic compounds with improved aspects.
Contoxins have provided useful research areas for therapeutics since the 1990’s with one drug, Prialt, already licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of severe and chronic pain. With increased research and investment from the pharmaceutical industry it could lead to many more contoxin based drugs.