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Snail Venom Studied as Source for New Drugs

Toxin's Ingredients May Treat Pain, Brain Diseases
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 25, 2004 -- Researchers are plumbing the depths of the seas to develop new drugs for pain relief and brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy.

They're particularly interested in some of the lowliest ocean dwellers: cone snails.

Cone snails are mollusks found mostly in tropical waters. Some feed on fish; others eat mollusks or marine worms.

Cone snails inject their prey with venom to paralyze and eventually kill it. Their venom has even killed more than 30 people, including several who lived long enough to tell their tales.

The human venom victims reportedly didn't feel any pain. Autopsies showed that their internal organs weren't damaged.

That prompted scientists to take a look at cone snail venom. If its painkilling properties could be tapped, the toxin could yield new drugs.

Cone snail venom consists of a mixture of proteins. Each targets a specific nerve or vital body function.

Bruce Livett, associate biochemistry and molecular biology professor at Australia's University of Melbourne, is one of the researchers working on cone snail venom.

In a news release, he predicts that "in the near future," cone snail venom or its derivatives could supplement or even replace morphine in pain management.

Cone snail venom is also being investigated for possible treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy, says Livett, who recently led a review of studies on cone snail venom published since 1999.

More than 200 patents had already been filed, according to the review, which was published in Current Medicinal Chemistry.

"The potential for drug development is high and the potential benefits are great," providing that the drugs can be effectively delivered to the body, write the researchers.

Livett and his colleagues have signed a license with Metabolic Pharmaceuticals in Melbourne to develop a compound called ACV1, which is based on cone snail venom.

In animal experiments, ACV1 prevented pain and appeared "to accelerate the rate of recovery from a nerve injury," says Livett in a news release.

ACV1 will be developed for use in treating nerve pain associated with diseases such as diabetes and shingles, according to the news release.

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