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In the Pipeline: Conus genus Venom Offers Vast Clinical Potential for Pain Reduction

December 14, 2017
The numbing properties of components found in cone snails may neutralize pain symptoms and lead to new insights on biologic pathway targets.

With J. Michael Macintosh, MD

A growing number of researchers have been looking into the potential medicinal benefits of mollusk venom in recent years. A new $10 million federal grant to the University of Utah Health will enable scientists to dive deeper into the data as it applies to the treatment of chronic pain. 

A multi-disciplinary team at the university aims to use the Department of Defense’s four-year grant to “identify new, natural compounds to develop non-opioid drugs for pain management,” according to a university press release.1 Specifically, the team hopes to uncover new therapeutic possibilities within the numbing properties of cone snail venom.

 An overview published by Tosti et al,2 based in Italy, provides insight into why the Conus genus is being explored in particular. There are 700 species of cone snails that produce conotoxins, which give rise to isoforms that can ultimately target certain sodium channels to affect pain perception and inflammation. Further, the venom may provide an alternative to opioid medications, which often come with undesirable side effects.  The analgesic properties of these ocean organisms’ venom, therefore may offer vast clinical potential.

New research will build upon recent University of Utah findings of a compound that “blocks pain by targeting a pathway not associated with opioids” within the small marine cone snail known as Conus regius.In preclinical studies, a component of Conus regius venom appeared to neutralize pain and protect against the worsening of pain. The university team plans to further test this compound, including its effect on nerve damage, in larger rodent groups.

“New compounds appear to act on the peripheral, rather than central nervous system (CNS), thus avoiding the CNS complications” that may come with stimulation of opioid receptors (eg, sedation, respiratory depression, and impaired cognition), explained J Michael McIntosh, MD, research professor of biology and professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah. “In addition, animal tests have shown increased (rather than decreased) effects with chronic dosing.”

Researchers also plan to focus on alternate biological pathways that may reduce pain sensation and inflammation. “Immune cells appear to play a critical role in the mechanisms of nerve injury pain. Compounds under investigation reduce the immune cell accumulation at the site of nerve injury,” said Dr. McIntosh. “Alteration of immune cell, neuron communication following nerve injury may not only mask the symptoms of acute pain but has the potential to accelerate recovery from injury and thereby prevent the development of chronic pain.”

The team previously moved forward an already FDA approved compound (ziconotide) isolated from the venom of Conus magus that blocks calcium channels. 

Last updated on: December 15, 2017
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Can Cone Snail Venom Be the Next Treatment for Neuropathic Pain?
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