The United State is facing an epidemic of fatal drug overdoses due to the use of prescription opioids as painkillers. In the US in 2015, there were over 20,000 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin. Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. Now, researchers may have found an alternative to opioids in the venom of the royal cone snail, a mollusk found in shallow waters from the Caribbean to the Brazilian coast.
The royal cone snail, known scientifically as Conus regius, has a fish-immobilizing sting that can be venomous enough to be potentially fatal to humans. The chemical mix in the venom has been of interest to scientists because of its pain blocking characteristics. One compound in the venom, Rg1A, has been found to act very differently from opioids. Unlike opioids which dull the brain’s awareness of pain, and are dangerously addictive, Rg1A acts on the pain receptors in the body itself, dulling the pain at its source. The compound also has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.
J. Michael McIntosh, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health Sciences, told the BBC : “What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention. Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat,” he said. “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.”
Researchers at Kineta, an eight-year-old Seattle-based biotech company, may be on the way to creating a drug based on the snail venom compound that would have the pain-killing qualities of opioids but without the “brain calming” and addictive qualities. Testing in rats has shown that the experimental compound can remain effective for as long as 72 hours. Testing the drug on humans is expected to begin next year.