Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A novel compound produced by a tiny marine snail species could inspire an alternative to opioids, the highly addictive class of pain killers.
"Nature has evolved molecules that are extremely sophisticated and can have unexpected applications," Baldomera Olivera, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, explained in a news release. "We were interested in using venoms to understand different pathways in the nervous system."
The predatory "crown cone" sea snail, Conus regius, uses venom to paralyze and kill its prey. The species is found through the Caribbean.
Olivera and his colleagues isolated the main compound, Rg1A, from the snail's venom and tested its pain-reduction abilities on rodents. The compound interacts with a pain pathway not targeted by opioids.
In tests, researchers found Rg1A blocks nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, reducing pain. Models showed an analog of Rg1A worked to block similar pain receptors in humans.
"We found that the compound was still working 72 hours after the injection, still preventing pain," said J. Michael McIntosh, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health Sciences.
Researchers published their tests results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention. Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat," McIntosh said. "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."