Toxic Snail Venoms Yielding New Painkillers, Drugs

June 14, 2005

In chronic pain? Don't be surprised if you find yourself at a corner pharmacy filling a prescription for synthetic snail venom sometime soon.

Last December the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first painkiller derived from a cocktail of potent chemicals produced by cone snails.

The creatures, which are also known as cone shells, inhabit the world's dwindling coral reefs. There are more than 500 known cone snail species.

Studying cone snail venom, researchers have derived other new treatments for pain, epilepsy, and incontinence. The drugs are in clinical and preclinical trials. Scientists say more experimental drugs are in development at research labs around the world.

"They could have a cure to prostate cancer, a cure to AIDS. I have no idea," said Jon-Paul Bingham, a biochemist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

Bingham is a leading researcher on cone snails. He said there are more than 500 cone snail species, each able to produce more than a hundred unique toxins.

Each toxin is a potential new drug. Scientists have studied less than one percent of them.

Bingham worries that "it's getting harder and harder to [collect] these snails."

Cone snails are found primarily in coral reefs in warm, tropical waters. But as Eric Chivian, the founder and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noted, "We are destroying coral reefs."

According to Chivian, some 26 percent of the world's reefs are damaged beyond repair, and another 30 to 50 percent are severely degraded.

The proven potential of drugs derived from cone snail venom is the best example of the cost associated with the loss of the world's coral reefs, Chivian said.

"I'm totally convinced cone snails as a group may have more potential for new medicines than any other genus in nature," Chivian said. (A genus is a group of closely related species.) "The number of different toxins they have developed over some 30 to 50 million years of evolution is unparalleled in nature."

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