A small snail with powerful venom may hold a key to future alternatives to opioid pain medication.
Scientists at the University of Utah have found a compound that blocks pain by targeting a pathway not associated with opioids.
“Nature has evolved molecules that are extremely sophisticated and can have unexpected applications,” begins Baldomera Olivera, Ph.D., professor in biology at the University of Utah. “We were interested in using venoms to understand different pathways in the nervous system.”
Conus regius, a small marine cone snail common to the Caribbean Sea, packs a venomous punch, capable of paralyzing and killing its prey.
In this study, the researchers found that a compound isolated from snail’s venom, Rg1A, acts on a pain pathway distinct from that targeted by opioid drugs. Using rodent models, the scientists showed that “?9?10” nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) functions as a pain pathway receptor and that RgIA4 is an effective compound to block this receptor. The pathway adds to a small number of non-opioid-based pathways that could be further developed to treat chronic pain.
The compound works its way through the body in 4 hours, but the scientists found the beneficial effects were maintained for longer periods of time.
“We found that the compound was still working 72 hours after the injection, still preventing pain,” said J. Michael McIntosh, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health Sciences. The duration of the outcome may suggest that the snail compound has a restorative effect on some components of the nervous system.
“What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention,” said McIntosh. “Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat. 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.”
The researchers will continue to the next step of pre-clinical testing to investigate the safety and effectiveness of a new drug therapy.
Most pain medications available today work through a limited number of pathways and are not sufficient to alleviate chronic pain. “RgIA4 works by an entirely new pathway, which opens the door for new opportunities to treat pain,” said McIntosh. “We feel that drugs that work by this pathway may reduce burden of opioid use.”
Featured photo credit: My Huynh