Sea Snail Venom Shows Promise As Opioid Alternative For Pain Relief

By Kelly Burch 02/23/17

The sea snail venom compound relieved pain in rats for up to 72 hours after injection.

Conus Regius
Photo via Zsnapper/ Wikipedia

Researchers have found that a compound from snail venom can provide long-lasting relief from pain without activating the opioid receptors, opening the possibility of long-lasting pain relief without a high risk of addiction.

A research team from the University of Utah studied RgIA, a compound isolated from the venom from Conus regius, a cone snail found in the Caribbean Sea. They found that the compound blocks pain by acting on a pain pathway that is not used by opioid drugs.

By acting on a non-opioid pathway, researchers hope that the compound will eventually provide people with pain relief without the high risk of addictions that opioids bring.

"Nature has evolved molecules that are extremely sophisticated and can have unexpected applications," wrote Baldomera Olivera, Ph.D., professor in biology at the University of Utah. "We were interested in using venoms to understand different pathways in the nervous system.”

The compound was effective in relieving pain in rats even after the compound left their bodies, suggesting that it could be used for long-lasting pain relief. 

“We found that the compound was still working 72 hours after the injection, still preventing pain," said J. Michael McIntosh, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health Sciences. This suggests that the compound could even be used to restore healthy function to the nervous system and eliminate pain. 

"What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention," McIntosh said. "Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat. This compound offers a potential new pathway to prevent pain from developing in the first place and offer a new therapy to patients who have run out of options." 

After finding that the venom relieved pain in rats, researchers created the analog RgIA4 and used chemical tests to see if it would bind with the human pain receptor, which it did. The pain-relief effects are tested in rats by giving the animals a chemotherapy drug that causes extreme sensitivity to cold and touch. Rats that received RgIA4 reacted similarly to rats that were genetically modified to not have the pain receptor. 

Researchers also hope that the compound could provide more effective pain relief by acting on a different pathway than many of the current pain pills. 

"RgIA4 works by an entirely new pathway, which opens the door for new opportunities to treat pain," said McIntosh. "We feel that drugs that work by this pathway may reduce burden of opioid use." 

Use of the compound will move on to preclinical testing. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.