Sea snail offers natural healing powers for a range of illnesses from chronic pain to diseases of the brain

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A beautiful, but often deadly, snail from the sea has been revealed as a largely untapped source of natural healing powers for a range of illnesses from chronic pain to diseases of the brain.

Associate Professor Bruce Livett from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology says, “It appears that cone snails have adopted the general strategy of including a pain-reducing component among the more lethal components of its venom.”

“That is, it first pacifies its victim before immobilising and eventually killing it. Death by cone snail is seemingly a painless one.”

Cone snails (cone shells) are molluscs found mostly in tropical waters. Some feed on fish, others on molluscs or marine worms, injecting them with toxic venom which paralyses and eventually kills the prey. As many as 30 humans have died from cone snail envenomation.

The venom is a cocktail of potent peptides that each target specific nerve channels or receptors involved in vital body functions, such as muscle contraction. The existence of a pain eliminator, or analgesic, in the venom was only discovered in the past few years by Dr Baldomero Olivera and colleagues from the USA.

“The finding that these cone snail analgesics are effective in humans has opened a Pandora’s box of potential drugs from the sea for commercial development as clinical pharmaceuticals,” Associate Professor Livett says.

Associate Professor Livett, in collaboration with Associate Professor Zeinab Khalil from the University’s National Ageing Research Institute, Associate Professor Ken Gayler and Dr John Down from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and research students Mr David Sandall, Mr David Keays and Ms Narmatha Satkunanathan have already isolated and characterized a compound called ACV1 for the treatment of pain.

“AVC1 was isolated from the Australian cone shell Conus victoriae and has been shown to be effective in preventing pain in several experimental animal models of human pain syndromes, including post-surgical and neuropathic pain,” says Associate Professor Livett.

“In addition, it has the unique property that it appears to accelerate the rate of recovery from a nerve injury.”

The University of Melbourne research team recently signed a licence with Metabolic Pharmaceuticals in Melbourne to develop ACV1 for use in the treatment of neuropathic pain associated with diseases such as diabetes and shingles.

Compounds from the cone shell toxins are also believed to have potential therapeutic benefits in the treatment of a range of illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy and could eventually surpass morphine as a pain relief drug.

Associate Professor Livett says, “In the near future we expect that pain management by morphine will be replaced, or at least supplemented, by co-administration with cone snail toxins or their derivatives.”

“The benefits are enormous – this is a natural remedy that will overcome the dependence and other unwanted side effects of opioid drugs.”

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