Opioid painkillers are up to the task of tackling pain, but they also come with a terrible side effect: a very high potential for severe addition that can be hard to break. The medical community has long sought alternatives to opioids that would be as effective while eliminating or reducing the addiction potential, and now researchers may have found that alternative. It comes, oddly enough, from the venom of a tiny sea snail.
Called Conus Regius, or otherwise known as the ‘crown cone’ for its shell shape, this marine gastropod mollusk is venomous, and that venom contains a powerful painkiller that doesn’t affect the same pathways targeted by opioids. Even better, initial tests with the painkiller have shown that pain relief benefits persist even once the substance has left the body.
It isn’t the entire array of venom that has this benefit, though, instead being one particular compound in it called Rg1A; it works by blocking nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, nAChR, which can serve as pathway receptors for pain. The discovery was notable in multiple ways — in addition to finding a new non-opioid substance that kills pain, it also revealed to researchers a new non-opioid pathway that can be blocked to treat pain, which may lead to other future drugs.
It only takes four hours for this venom-derived compound to make its way through the body, but it continues to prevent pain 72 hours later. This reality has lead researchers to wonder whether the compound is also restoring the nervous system in some way. The prospects are exciting, and the compound is slated to enter pre-clinical testing to see whether this could one day be used as a pain reliever for humans.