Poisonous sea snails found off Australia’s coastline could provide the next big breakthrough in pain relief.

Research being carried out at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), is a step closer to a safe pain relief alternative to morphine. Clinical research has demonstrated that the lethal cone snail found off the Queensland coastline could be the answer. The research is being conducted by internationally renowned researcher Professor David Adams, Executive Director at IHMRI. Professor Adams and his team have been looking at the way sensory neurons transmit information so they can find new drugs to block them. He says the cone snail’s venom is potentially lethal and there have been a number of reported fatalities over the years.
“In some of the old medical reports where people have been stung by these cone snails, they don’t feel pain, some of them die because of respiratory paralysis,” Professor Adams said.
Studies have revealed the snail’s venom contains up to 1000 unique peptides, a number of which are potent analgesics. “In a way nature has done a lot of the work, these peptides are designed to target receptors in pain pathways.” Professor Adams says it could potentially be used to treat patients with chronic visceral pain, experienced by sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He says at present there are limited pain relief options available. Professor Adams has been working on this research project for 15 years. He says advances in the chemical synthesis reproduction of peptides, should pave the way for the venom-based pain killer to be taken in a tablet or diffused in a tea. “The problem with morphine is people can develop tolerance to it, it becomes ineffective, or they become addicted to it,” he said. Health authorities in the USA approved the first snail venom-derived painkiller in 2005, but its trial was limited because it needed to be injected into the spine. To further advance his research, Professor Adams is looking to establish clinical trials for the treatment of IBS with the help of clinicians at Wollongong hospital.

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