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Scientists Discover a 'Complex Cocktail of Many Chemicals' in Snail Venom That Could Treat Cancer, Pain and Addiction

"Thousand times stronger than morphine."

Photo credit: Dr. Frank Marí/Florida Atlantic University\n

A sea snail might seem like an unassuming creature, but the cone snail specifically is not only predatory against fish but its venom can be lethal to humans if they come into contact with of it as well.

Photo credit: Dr. Frank Marí/Florida Atlantic University

A feature in Nature more than a decade ago described how just a few microliters of a cone snail's venom could kill 10 people. Though deadly, scientists have long researched cone snail venom for its potential use in medicine and pain relief.

The latest in this field comes from the University of Queensland where pain treatment researchers discovered new toxins in the venom of one type of cone snail, Conus episcopatus.

"This study gives the first-ever snapshot of the toxins that exist in the venom of a single cone snail," researcher Paul Alewood said in a statement. "Cone snail venoms are a complex cocktail of many chemicals and most of these toxins have been overlooked in the past."

Alewood and his team devised a new method to look at the shape and composition of proteins within the venom, allowing them to discover six new "frameworks" that will support further drug research. To put this discovery into context, the news release from the university noted that there are 25 known frameworks discovered in the last 25 years.

"We expect these newly discovered frameworks will also lead to new medications, which can be used to treat pain, cancer and a range of other diseases," Alewood said of the findings published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another study published earlier this year based on research from Florida Atlantic University explained how the venom of these animals is of particular interest in the field of pain relief research, in part, because of its properties that act as an analgesic and immobilize prey.

FAU's study on a different type of cone snail discovered how the toxins could have applications in cancer and addition treatments.

Cone snail venom is complex with different components having different results. According to the Nature article, previous research discovered one component put mice to sleep while others had various neurological effects like making the animal shake or run in circles.

According to a PBS special on the potential applications of cone snails, there have been more than 2,500 research papers on the topic in the last few decades and the properties that make its venom "thousand times stronger than morphine, the most powerful traditional painkiller."

This post has been updated to include a more appropriate photo of a cone snail. 

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