French scientists have discovered a painkiller as powerful as morphine in the venom of the Black Mamba.
The Black Mamba is not only one of the most dangerous snakes in Africa, but is also one of the fastest. The reptile uses this speed, and its deadly venom, to paralyse its prey by releasing neurotoxins into small mammals and other prey. The discovery was made during an experiment on mice and left the scientists baffled as to why this pain relief would be produced in the first place. As humans and mice share very similar pain mechanisms, this could be a very important discovery in the advancement of medicine.
The scientists analysed venom from over 50 other species of snake before isolating the morphine-like properties found in the Mamba venom. These painkilling proteins, named mambaigins, are a particularly important discovery because they produce an analgesia as powerful as that of morphine, but without any of the side effects. Unlike morphine which works on the opioid pathway in the brain, mambaigins focus on a completely different and “novel” mechanism of action and so should eliminate most of the more common side effects such as headaches, vomiting, twitching and addictiveness.
This is not the first time that venom has been used in the field of medicine. Last month it was published that reptile venom may be used to develop a whole range of new drugs due to its ability to adapt and change within the reptiles body. This ability to quickly evolve is thought to have been necessary to avoid prey developing a resistance to the venom.
It has been noticed that the snakes are able to “reclaim” certain toxins and safely reuse them elsewhere in the body. This remarkable ability to recycle its own cells has meant that the venom glands of poisonous reptiles have become a melting pot of genetic possibilities. Not only are they able to create an adaptive venom, they are also able to store and adapt toxic molecules to benefit their own survival chances in a world of adapt or be eaten.
However, scientists have warned that there is still a long way to go as the venom is currently only potent if injected directly into the spine.