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A Blue View: Pain Killer from the Sea

Published January 15, 2014

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

January 8, 2014: Pain Killer from the Sea

Click here to listen to John discuss the medical uses associated with cone snails!

Over 100 million American adults live with chronic pain—more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. It is a significant public health problem.

In the 19th century, scientists discovered that opiates such as morphine could relieve pain. Opiates, however, are associated with many adverse side effects and carry the risk of addiction.

Enter the lowly cone snail.

National Geographic Cone Snail

Image of a cone snail via National Geographic.

There are more than 3,200 species of marine predatory gastropods assigned to the genus Conus. You may recognize some of them from their beautiful shells, ranging from thimble- to palm-sized, colored in artful speckles and zig zags of brown and white. They are prized by shell collectors.

Cone snails live primarily in warm tropical and subtropical seas. Scientists became interested in cone snails as potential pharmaceutical agents because of the way they capture their prey, like which is right out of a science-fiction movie. Like archers, snails launch a venomous harpoon, a miniature hypodermic needle filled with poison, instantly immobilizing or killing their prey. To most, not a very snail-like things to do. Watch the cone snail in action: 

The venom contains conotoxins, some of which are mild central nervous system neurotoxins that cause numbness and pins and needles, but others can even kill a human.

So, if you're ever on a tropical vacation and see a cone snail, by all means admire it’s beauty from afar, but don't pick it up. Instead, leave the snail-wrangling to people like Dr. Baldomero "Toto" Olivera.

As a child in the Philippines, Toto witnessed cone snails bringing down large fish and wondered what exactly made it such a potent toxin…so he decided to devote his career to finding out.

Toto and his team were the first to isolate a powerful analgesic compound from the magician's cone snail. It is non-addictive, does not cause tolerance, has few side effects and, amazingly, is 100,000 times more powerful than morphine. Marketed under the name Prialt, it was approved in 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of severe pain. It must be administered by a spinal pump, but oral formulations are in the works.

These clinical human trials will, if successful, be the biggest leap forward in pain management since the 19th century discovery of morphine. That is joyous news to the 47 percent of American adults who suffer from chronic pain.

However, as fast as we are learning about the cone snails (and other plants, animals, and microbes whose beneficial compounds are yet to be discovered), they are being lost because of pollution, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change. To protect cone shells, biologists are asking nations in tropical zones to take new steps to monitor the shell trade and protect reefs.

Tropical oceans are places of obvious beauty and home to thousands of creatures, including cone snails. If for no other reason, we would do well to conserve their biodiversity and reverse habitat loss to protect the largest pharmacopeia in nature, one that could save us from a world of hurt, as long as we can keep its world healthy.

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