Snail venom could be key to new pain relief medicines

New and more effective forms of pain relief medication could be developed using research based off the deadly venom of poisonous sea snails.  

This is according to a team of researchers from the University of Glasgow, which is setting out to learn about the unique form of venom produced by cone snails. 

A predatory marine animal, the cone snail produces a venom which contains chemicals called conotoxins – highly potent neurotoxic peptides which paralyses prey by blocking parts of their nervous systems.  

Now, researchers are assessing whether modified peptides based on the venom could form the basis of future drugs capable of safely blocking pain receptors in the human body.  

While humans are rarely seriously injured by cone snails, there have been documented cases where stings from large cone snails have been fatal to people. Currently, there is no anti-toxin available, meaning that serious stings cannot be effectively treated.  

The researchers hope that their project could also help lead to the development of the first-ever treatments for conotoxin poisoning in the future.  

The researchers from the University of Glasgow will team up with machine learning and artificial intelligence researchers from the University of Southampton to better understand how the cone snail’s venom works to affect human muscles. Together with colleagues at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, they will work to investigate how conotoxin peptides are structured at the molecular level.  

Following this the teams will synthesise new peptides that interact with particular types of receptors in the human nervous system known as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, ornAChRs.  

The researchers will then utilise simulations to understand how the peptides bind with certain muscle receptors.  

Official comments   

Dr Andrew Jamieson, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Chemistry, is the project’s principal investigator and will be leading the research at the University’s new Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre. 

Dr Jamieson said: “The cone snail might seem like an unlikely prospect for breakthroughs in drug discovery, but the conotoxins it produces have a lot of intriguing properties which have already shown promise in medicine.  

“This project brings together some of the UK’s leading researchers across a wide range of disciplines to learn about how conotoxins work. Then we’ll look at ways we can engineer new analogues to investigate how effective they might be as novel drugs for a range of medical applications.  

“Those new molecules’ ability to interact with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors could lead to new forms muscle relaxants for anaesthesia, or painkillers which are just as effective as opioids but don’t have the same associated potential for addiction. It’s an exciting project and we’re looking forward to getting started.” 

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