Researchers at the University of Utah say they have stumbled onto a small sea snail that they believe holds the answer to opioid addiction. A study published in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesindicates that it is the venom of these tiny marine mollusks (Conus regius) that actually has such a wild therapeutic effect on the brain.
Previous research looking into the effects of RgIA had examined its potential for pain relief in rodents, but the basis by which the compound acted was unclear.
The goal of the study was to “addresses the need to phase out opioids as the major analgesic drugs for moderate to severe chronic pain,” which researchers believe they have achieved.
This is not the first time scientists have hypothesized over how the RgIA compound could be beneficial in creating non-opioid medications. Previous research shows that this aspect of the snails’ venom, which is used to paralyze and kill prey in the deep, has killed pain in rodents in a number of experiments. However, it wasn’t until now that researchers say they have been able to understand the full scope of how this compound works on pain.
Interestingly, researchers say the compound provides pain relief for up to 72 hours after being introduced to the body—a detail that could render current pain medications obsolete.
One of the analogues they came up with, called RgIA4, also appeared to bind tightly with the human version of this pain receptor.
To see whether RgIA4 was effective for pain relief, the researchers administered the compound to rats and mice that had been given a chemotherapy drug that causes extreme sensitivity to cold and touch.
“Interactions that are not normally painful, like sheets rubbing against the body or pants against the leg, become painful,” explains one of the team, J. Michael McIntosh.
The rodents given RgIA4 did not experience pain, but untreated animals did when given the chemotherapy medication. In addition, genetically altered rodents that had their α9α10 receptor removed also did not experience pain.
The researchers suggest the results are evidence that they’ve isolated the molecular target that the venom compound acts upon – but of course, it’s still early days for the analogue.
But the researchers are hopeful that future studies will show that we’ve got a new mechanism for pain relief here, and one which could provide a much-needed alternative to opioids.
If that’s the case, another promising thing about the synthesised compound is how long-lasting it seems to be. While RgIA4 worked its way out of the rodents’ bodies in about 4 hours, the painkilling effects persisted long after.
“What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention,” said researcher J. Michael McIntosh. “Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat. 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.”
The findings are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.