Cone snail poison tea

Snail Tea
Kayla found the best thing for her back pain was a warm cup of tea.

Image: Mike McRae

More from the CSIRO science by email. They ask, “Consider the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”

Oooch, that would have to be my tangle with the stinging tree. “Imagine if it was constant and never went away.” Oh yeh, I remember.

“For some people, this scary thought is an everyday reality, where even the strongest pain killers fail to bring relief or come at a great cost.”

Oh no, no amount of chronic pain equals the pain of the stinging tree. Maybe terminal cancer pain.

“The type of snail the researchers are studying is known more for its ability to kill than bring relief. Cone snails are a group of aquatic mollusc that can be found in tropical waters worldwide. Their beautiful shells are prized by collectors, however some species pack a powerful punch in the form of a tiny poisonous harpoon they shoot from a tube. It’s this toxin that has captured the scientists’ interest.”

Oh yeh, we were trained as children to be very careful to avoid them on the Barrier Reef. Likewise of the stinging tree, but one day I just lucked out.

“It is a complex mixture of a large number of short proteins, or peptides, which contribute to shutting down the nervous system of the snail’s prey. In the case of some of the larger species, enough of the venom can be injected into humans to lead to a quick death. On their own, some of the proteins can stop nerves from sending pain signals to the brain. Finding which ones has been a challenge. Researchers have narrowed down their search for suitable pain-relief to a handful of peptides that can be synthesised in a laboratory. While they look promising, they all need to be injected into the nerves of the spinal cord. Swallowing a pill would be far easier, yet most proteins can be quickly broken apart by the acid and enzymes of the digestive system.

Fortunately, there are a few proteins that can survive the journey from the gut and reach the body’s nervous system. The chemists considered one found in an African plant that is used in traditional herbal medicine to speed up childbirth. They discovered it had an unusual circular shape, making it less likely to be broken apart in the gut. By copying the shape, it’s possible to turn the cone snail’s peptide into a form that could deliver the medication through the mouth rather than a needle.”

Perhaps they could genetically engineer a stinging tree with that peptide, and there is the injector and drug all in one.

“Although it’s still being tested, it so far promises to have fewer side effects than other medications and a low risk of chemical addiction. A variety of organisms rely on poison or venom to kill their prey or act as protection. How many hide secrets that could instead be used to heal rather than harm?”

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