The Venom From This Aquatic Cone Snail Fights Addiction, Diabetes, and MS

In tropical oceans around the world lives an eccentric family of snails that possesses one of the most complex and powerful venoms in the world. The cone snail ranges in size between about a thimble and a very small traffic cone. It produces a geometric cone for a shell, often decorated with intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Many pharmaceutical companies have already derived compounds from cone snail venom, and researchers are currently investigating its effects on diseases such as addiction, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many more.

This is not your garden-variety snail for a simple reason: it hunts. The snail possesses a special tooth tipped with a hypodermic needle-like harpoon. Inside the tooth flows the cone snail’s venom, and when it pierces the flesh of its prey, its paralyzing effects take place almost instantaneously. With its prey incapacitated, the snail then swallows it whole.

The Venom

The venom of the cone snail contains over 100 different toxins – known specifically as conotoxins – that combine to achieve deadly results. The exact cocktail varies between species. Every conotoxin is comprised of a chain of amino acids, known in chemistry as a peptide. Each individual peptide targets a specific nerve receptor that corresponds to a process within the body. For example, some cone snail venom contains a form of insulin that depletes a fish’s blood sugar and makes them black out, allowing the snail to eat it at its leisure.

Because of the huge variety of peptides in the venom, the snails can be sure that they’ll be able to hack the nervous system of whatever creature they’re dealing with. While the sting of smaller snails is no worse than that of a bee, the venom of larger ones can be fatal to humans. Researchers in the field of medicine have been hard at work separating these peptides and discovering what role they play.

 

Cone snail attacks brittle star
Cone snail attacks brittle star. Credit: Astrid Gast/ Dreamstime

Pain Relief

The most successful so far is the medication known as Prialt. The medication serves as an extremely potent pain-reliever that is over 1,000 times more powerful than morphine. It has proven highly effective for anyone suffering from intense chronic pain who is immune to traditional pain relief, like morphine or other opioids. Another huge benefit is that it has no addictive qualities.

Addiction

Not only can cone snail venom cut the pain without the risk of addiction, it can also work to inhibit substance abuse. Every toxin works by blocking a neuron receptor in the brain, including those that cause us to lose control with drug and alcohol use. Neuroscientist J. Michael McIntosh of the University of Utah successfully treated animals in the laboratory of addictive tendencies, and there is good reason to believe it will be effective with humans as well.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, is a disease that disrupts the central nervous system and neural pathways within the brain along with its ability to communicate with the rest of the body.  According to Dr. Charles Galea from Monash University, the disease develops by creating pores in walls of immune cells. These pores then provide a pathway for chemical messengers to pass through. Given enough time, these messengers eventually disrupt the normal goings on of the cell and trigger the disease.

Dr. Galea has shown cone snail venom can halt this process that stimulates MS in animal test subjects.

Diabetes

While the peptides contained within cone snail venom will block a neural pathway, that does not always translate into halting an action within the body. It can also trigger other processes.

One conotoxin produced by the cone snail, for example, has been found to provide fast-acting relief for diabetes patients who let their blood sugar slip too low. It is a form of insulin, and it works on many fish by depleting their blood sugar, causing them to black out and enter a coma. With humans, however, it actually triggers the production of insulin.

As a bonus, it works incredibly quickly. For diabetes patients who struggle to manage their insulin levels, the conotoxin has proven effective as a fallback when their blood sugar gets too low.

Much of this research is ongoing, and other studies not mentioned in this article are currently studying the effects of the venom on Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s syndrome, and even cancer. With time, the cone snail may become instrumental in fighting the most significant diseases afflicting society today.

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