In Utah and many other parts of the country, opioid abuse is a major problem. Now, researchers at the University of Utah are studying the venom of a tropical snail because it could offer a template for a safer drug.
In the McIntosh lab, researcher Sean Christiansen is elbow-deep in a bubbling fish tank. With a pair of metal tongs, he holds a small goldfish in front of a triangular orange snail.
"Well you see, the first part is their siphon, that’s kind of their sensory organ, but now you see kind of like a yellow cord that’s coming out. This is the proboscis that they’ll harpoon with," Christiansen says.
This snail is a fish hunter. Suddenly, it strikes the goldfish with its extended tentacle.
"And then the paralysis toxins take over. I mean you look at the fish. It’s just immobilized now," Christiansen says.
These venomous cone snails are being studied because their complex cocktail of toxins may offer a template for researchers to create a substitute for painkillers, specifically opioids.
Michael McIntosh is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah and director of the lab. He says with mice, the snail compound is an effective painkiller, it has shown to last longer than opioids and there’s no evidence that it’s addictive.
"It addresses the pain but also helps address the prevention of nerve damage from a variety of insults, whether it’s chemotherapy or diabetes," McIntosh says.
This is also important. His research suggests that in addition to reducing pain, it spares the nerves that are often damaged during these medical procedures that trigger pain in the first place.
"Our hope is that we’re not just masking the symptoms but actually getting at the root cause of the pain," McIntosh says.
A synthetic version of the drug is in preclinical stages. The process will continue with more safety testing that McIntosh hopes will conclude with approval from the Food and Drug Administration. But he says that’s still several years away.