Morphine is a synthetic narcotic designed to treat severe pain. As an opioid, tt is created from opium, or the seeds from certain poppy plants.
While morphine has been a powerful pain management drug, morphine has also proven to be highly addictive—over time, sustained use of morphine can reduce the body’s tolerance to it, requiring more morphine to achieve the same effect. Though morphine is a controlled substance and used in medical settings, addiction still occurs. According to the CDC, nearly half a million people died of opioid drug overdose from 1999 to 2019. This number includes deaths from heroin, morphine, and other pain medications (such as oxycodone).
As a result, new pain management methods are needed that are both effective and reduce the risk of addiction.
New research published in Science Advances outlines how a toxin derived from the poisonous Rolan cone (Conus rolani) snail species works as a painkiller, one that is potentially more effective and less addictive than morphine.
Conus rolani is one of nearly 800 sea snail species that use poison to attack and inactivate potential prey. Unlike other snails, however, Conus rolani sometimes waits hours for their slow-acting poison to completely incapacitate prey.
Researchers studied a specific Conus rolani toxin on mice, and found that it provided effective pain relief for far longer than morphine did. The research team had replicated nearly 100 of the toxin’s present in Conus rolani poison. They took x-ray images of the toxin that produced a positive effect in mice, and found that it resembled somatostatin, a naturally occurring hormone in humans that has been shown to help regulate pain.
The use of snails in medicine and pain management is not new, nor is turning to nature for inspiration in the development of therapeutics. Some pain medications have been developed using the Conus magus snail species. For example, Ziconotide is an FDA-approved medication for severe pain. However, many of these medications are currently expensive and very invasively administered (they must be administered directly into the central nervous system). The toxin from Conus rolani could make pain medication more accessible.