DoD Backs Research Into Sea Slug Venom as Painkiller Alternative

By Paul Gaita 12/06/17

The U.S. Department of Defense gave about $10 million toward research exploring the pain-relieving potential of venom from marine animals.

sea snail
“This project turns to ocean organisms to identify the next generation of therapeutic pain medications.”

Growing interest from the scientific community in the use of venom from certain marine animals as an alternative to opioid pain treatment received a considerable push in late November when the Department of Defense (DoD) awarded researchers a multimillion-dollar grant to explore whether such substances could have analgesic and anesthetic properties.

The DoD is seeking new forms of pain treatment for injured soldiers that do not involve medication with possible dependency issues. The DoD has awarded a four-year grant totaling $10 million to a team from the University of Utah Health to determine if the venom from mollusks such as sea snails or slugs may have that potential. The group will also expand previous research on the venom of the cone snail to develop a "stable drug" that can neutralize pain.

The venom of mollusks like the sea slug or snail is extremely potent and in the case of animals like the cone snail, could prove fatal to humans in its unfiltered form. But as Dr. J. Michael McIntosh, one of the contributing researchers involved in the DoD project, discovered along with fellow University of Utah scientists, there are properties in the snail's venom which appeared to not only reduce pain in tests involving rodents, but also helped nerves recover more quickly and completely from chronic pain.

"Over the process of time, that pain can become quite chronic in nature, because that nerve just doesn't properly heal," McIntosh said in an interview with the Deseret News. "The [venom of the cone snail] seems quite well-tolerated and seems to reverse some of the associated nerve damage."

Their research with the cone snail will form the basis for development of alternative medication that will cause the pain neutralizing effect. A team of scholars from a variety of disciplines, including psychiatry, medicinal chemistry and pharmacology will come together to work on compounds that will address different biological pathways in the body.

"We don't want to find another drug that works on the same pathways as opioids, because it will probably have the same problems with addiction and respiratory depression, among other side effects," said biology professor Russell Teichert, another investigator involved in the project.

Though research like that conducted at the University of Utah has explored the use of mollusk venom in pain management, its exact properties remain largely undefined for researchers. "Each [animal] has a couple hundred components in their venom," said McIntosh. "We're really just beginning to figure out how many there are in the venom. There are probably thousands. Which are of interest remains to be determined."

But its potential is enough to draw support from the DoD, which approved the grant through its Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program. The program seeks to "improve the health and well-being of all military service members, veterans and beneficiaries."

As McIntosh noted, research like the one conducted through the University of Utah speaks directly to the department's desire "in having its soldiers not be in pain and not be disabled by addiction. Obviously, there's a lot of injuries with soldiers and that can turn into a chronic disability if not adequately treated."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.