Could sea snail venom be the next morphine?
That’s the question Illawarra researcher Professor David Adams has spent the last 15 years trying to answer through his studies of poisonous cone snails found off the Queensland coastline.
Now Prof Adams and his team at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute are one step closer to seeing their research translate from laboratory to the pharmacy shelf.
While the cone snail’s venom itself can be lethal, some of the peptides it contains are potent painkillers.
‘’The way the cone snail immobilises its prey, is by injecting venom into it through a harpoon, and then devouring it,’’ Prof Adams said.
‘’The venom contains a multitude of peptides, or small proteins; a number of which have been found to be very effective analgesics.
‘’We have been able to isolate and identify these peptides and determine their sequence, which allows us to chemically synthesise them.
‘’They can then be taken either orally, as a tablet or tea, or via an intramuscular injection.’’
This would mean the painkiller would go straight to the point of pain, rather than the central nervous system like opioid painkillers.
‘’Opioids have been on the market for decades for chronic pain relief but we know there’s problems with compounds like morphine in terms of people developing tolerance and addiction,’’ Prof Adams said.
‘’This venom-based painkiller does not have those side effects so would provide a safe alternative.’’
Prof Adams said the painkiller could potentially be used to treat patients with chronic visceral pain, such as that experienced by sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome.
He’s working with gastroenterologists at Wollongong Hospital to establish clinical trials for the treatment of IBS.
‘’We know that almost 15 per cent of the population suffers from IBS and if we can make something they can take orally that goes straight through the digestive system to stop the pain, that would be fantastic,’’ he said.