Cone snail venom discovery opens up new leads for drugs

Cone snails

Researchers have reared deadly cone snails in a laboratory aquarium for the first time, uncovering new venoms for drug development.

Professor Richard Lewis, Dr Aymeric Rogalski and Dr Himaya Siddhihalu Wickrama Hewage from University of Queensland’s (UQ) Institute for Molecular Bioscience study venoms as therapeutics, and discovered crucial differences across the lifecycle of the tiny carnivorous marine species.

Professor Lewis said they found variations in the Conus magus diet, behaviour and toxicity. “Juvenile cone snails use a different cocktail of venoms than adult snails to kill their prey,” Professor Lewis said. “This is a rich and unexplored group of molecules that we can now examine as potential leads for drugs.

“A lot of our success with venom molecules has been in developing pain medications, but depending on the pharmacology we’ll see if it has therapeutic potential for any of the disease classes.”

The researchers were also surprised to find juvenile cone snails feed on a type of microalgae, with their diet changing after their metamorphosis into half-millimetre-long juveniles.

Professor Lewis said researchers around the world have studied adult marine cone snails and their deadly venom, but little had been known about their early life stages.

“This is because their eggs, larvae and juveniles are so hard to find and difficult to rear in an aquarium,” he said.

“Dr Rogalski took up the challenge during his PhD, establishing very elaborate aquaculture studies to find out how and what each stage of the snail ate.”

The researchers now have a sustainable system in which they can rear cone snails in a controlled environment, enabling studies of the life cycle and venoms of the juveniles.

Image shows: Juvenile cone snails, reared in a laboratory aquarium by IMB researchers.

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