Venom from cone snails could lead to strong painkillers with less risk for addiction

GLASGOW, Scotland — A venomous sea snail could hold the key to developing more effective painkillers with less risk of addiction, researchers hope. A team led by researchers from the University of Glasgow is setting out to learn more about the poison produced by cone snails, which are predatory marine animals found in warm seas and oceans throughout the world.

Deadly venom produced by cone snails has occasionally killed humans and there is no anti-toxin available, meaning there is no treatment. The snail’s venom contains chemicals called conotoxins – highly potent neurotoxic peptides which it uses to paralyze its prey by blocking parts of their nervous systems.

Modified peptides based on the venom could form the basis of future drugs capable of safely blocking pain receptors in the human body, it is hoped. The researchers hope that their project could also help lead to the development of the first-ever treatments for conotoxin poisoning in the future.

Experts in conotoxin chemistry and protein biochemistry from the university are teaming up with machine learning and artificial intelligence researchers from the University of Southampton to better understand how the cone snail’s venom works to affect human muscles. Together with colleagues at the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, they will work to investigate how conotoxin peptides are structured at the molecular level.

Scientists will build on that knowledge to synthesize new peptides which show promise for interacting with a particular type of receptors in the human nervous system known as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, ornAChRs. Then, using advanced computer modeling techniques, they will run simulations to determine their effectiveness in binding with muscle receptors.

Dr Andrew Jamieson, from the university’s School of Chemistry, is the project’s principal investigator. He will be leading the research at the university’s new Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre. “The cone snail might seem like an unlikely prospect for breakthroughs in drug discovery, but the conotoxins it produces have a lot of intriguing properties which have already shown promise in medicine,” he explains in a statement. “This project brings together some of the UK’s leading researchers across a wide range of disciplines to learn about how conotoxins work. Then we’ll look at ways we can engineer new analogues to investigate how effective they might be as novel drugs for a range of medical applications.

“Those new molecules’ ability to interact with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors could lead to new forms muscle relaxants for anesthesia, or painkillers which are just as effective as opioids, but don’t have the same associated potential for addiction,” he continues. “It’s an exciting project and we’re looking forward to getting started.”

The $2.5 million (£1.9m) project is supported by funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the United States’ Department of Defense.

Report by Sarah Ward, South West News Service