Could Snail Slime Be the Future of Pain Relief?

Scientists are excited about a pain-killing compound they found in a little stinging sea snail.

by Kastalia Medrano
Feb 21 2017, 8:53pm

Image: My Huynh

The path leading from weed to harder drugs is a made-up thing that's only cited by your relatives and congressional representatives when they need a straw man for Why The World is Bad, but the path from opioid painkillers to heroin is a horrifically well-documented epidemic that is one of the great disgraces of the modern medical industry. In some cases pain can be managed by fun new substitutions like VR, but for chronic pain, we're still looking for something as effective as opioids without the gamble of life-threatening addiction. 

So it's particularly exciting that scientists have discovered a potential new treatment for chronic pain in an unexpected place: the venom of a tiny sea snail. A compound found in the stuff targets a different neural pathway than do traditional opioids, and could prove to be a lifesaving alternative to narcotic painkillers for the management of long-term pain.

Rats injected with RgIA, the compound isolated from the venom, showed signs of pain relief for 72 hours after it was administered. Opioids generally all target the same pain pathway, but RgIA works by targeting an entirely separate one (a9a10 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, or nAChR, if you really had to know). We know of very few non-opioid-based pathways for managing chronic pain, so the success of this compound is a big step for alternative pain management.

This could be that breakthrough for long-lasting, long-term treatment—the researchers tested the RgIA compound specifically to find out whether the potential results could be translated from rats to humans, and found that a receptor present in the human brain is responsive to the treatment.

"What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention," J. Michael McIntosh, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health Science, said in a press release. "Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat. This compound offers a potential new pathway to prevent chronic pain from developing in the first place and also offers a new therapy to patients with established pain who have run out of options."

Left to its own devices, the Conus regius uses its venom to paralyze and/or kill prey with a level of viciousness one doesn't generally expect from such an unassuming creature as a snail, but hey, nature is wild like that. They're spotty and brownish, live mostly around the Caribbean, and will apparently sting you if you pick them up, so do not do that.

The source might seem unlikely to those of us just hearing about it, but the Conus regius's venom has actually been of interest to scientists for some time, and may have implications for detecting and treating certain forms of cancer on top of the pain-management stuff. Research has shown that the venom's chemical properties are also associated with treatment of both lung cancer and nicotine addiction. A University of Utah team published the latest findings Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

sea snails