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Cone snail venom could be used to produce painkillers

Scientists have already studied in great depth the venom of cone snails – predatory marine animals that prowl on the ocean floor, hunting and feeding upon fish – and found that it contains chemical compounds that can be adapted to treat chronic pain, diabetes, and other human diseases. In a new study led by the University of Utah and the University of Copenhagen, an international team of scientists discovered that a particular group of cone snails (Conus rolani) produces a venom compound similar to the hormone somatostatin.

Somatostatin is a hormone that, in humans and many other vertebrates, acts as a multipurpose inhibitor. For instance, it is the main inhibitor of growth hormone, and can be used to treat acromegaly, an excessive growth disorder. Moreover, it also inhibits hormones in the pancreas, as well as signals of inflammation and pain.

“So it’s this hormone that has many, many different functions in the human body,” said study senior author Helena Safavi-Hemami, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Utah and associate professor at the University of Copenhagen. “But it’s always blocking something. And because of that, it had been an interesting hormone for drug development for some time.”

While studying C.rolani – a species of cone snail that injects venom into fish to leave them sensory-deprived and disoriented and thus an easy prey – Professor Safavi-Hemami and her colleagues discovered that their venom contained a small peptide (chain of amino acids) called Consomatin Ro1 that had a few similarities with somatostatin. This peptide is short, stable, and efficient in the receptors it targets, appearing to activate two of the five human receptors for somatostatin with unique selectivity.  

Laboratory studies have shown that Consomatin Ro1 can block pain in mice with an efficiency similar to that of morphine, and thus may be used by cone snails to block pain so their prey does not know it has been struck.

Further research is needed to understand the origin of Consomatin Ro1 in snails, and to assess the potential of the compound to act as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever in humans. “This gives insight to the development of next-generation therapeutics,” said Christopher Hill, a distinguished professor of Biochemistry at the University of Utah. “More generally, this is a great example of how evolution in the natural world has already developed drug-like natural products that have great potential to improve human health.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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