Inside this small but beautiful shell could lie new secrets for tackling chronic pain.
Many cone snails can “give you a nasty sting” and some species can even kill you but scientists believe their venom might also hold the key to a new range of drugs to tackle pain.
There are even hopes that some of the dozens of chemicals contained in the sting could help treat Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer.
Scientists at the University of Queensland have been studying cone snails of many different shapes and sizes for decades.
Previous discoveries included a new prototype drug for treating chronic pain.
Paul Alewood and his team’s latest discovery took this investigation a step further.
They took a deep dive into the venom of the bishop’s cone snail, combining two chemical techniques to look at the snail’s venom duct in order to discover more about its contents than ever before.
It was previously thought cone snail venom could contain more than 100 different peptides, or conotoxins, possibly applicable across many areas of medicine.
“Combining that technology, we are now getting a lot of surprises,” Professor Alewood said.
“We’re finding there’s probably not 100 but more like 10,000 components.”
The team has a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council for pain relief research, so will focus its efforts there.
But Professor Alewood believes some of the molecules have potential in cancer treatment because of their ability to prevent both cell growth and cell death.
The professor said the most exciting components were the ones that could help target chronic pain without the side effects of existing pain relief drugs and hopefully more effectively than previous conotoxin-based efforts.
“We don’t have many pain drugs out there,” he said.
“You probably know most of them: Aspirin, paracetamol, the Voltarens of the world, morphine. but after that the arsenal’s very low.”
Professor Alewood said molecules that could help treat neuropathic pain from problems such as nerve damage, diabetes and cancer were particular exciting.
Beyond pain relief, he suggested the team’s combined approach to analysing the venom could be applied across studies into other venomous species and even in humans, where researchers wanted to look at proteins expressed from cells.
There are hundreds of species of cone snails along the Australian coast alone, many of which could hold similar drug prospects.