A new study from the University of Copenhagen has shown that the venom of Conus rolani snails can act as a pain reliever, Scienceblog reports. Scientists have learned that a certain component of the poison can block pain in mice for even longer than morphine.

University of Copenhagen researcher Bea Ramiro began studying sea snails Conus rolani off the Philippine island of Cebu in 2018. Previously, scientists knew that the venom of another species of sea snail, Conus magus, could be used as a pain reliever. It is able to replace morphine and opioids and has fewer side effects. The researchers hoped that they would be able to find a new species of sea snail whose venom would have a better effect if used more simply. As a result of studying the venom of Conus rolani, scientists have discovered a toxin that blocks pain in a completely different way than known drugs such as morphine, thus avoiding some of the most devastating effects of morphine on humans.

Today, a medicine based on the poison of the snail Conus magus is already available on the medical market. It is used in back injuries and in the treatment of cancer. However, the price of the drug is high, and the method of its application is complicated; the drug must be injected into the central nervous system, for example, through a spinal implant. The team behind the new study hopes that the discovery of a new toxin from Conus rolani snails will help them develop a more effective and easier-to-administer pain reliever.

Scientists have obtained the venom of sea snails and divided it into various components to find out which of them have an effect on mice. Researchers have created synthetic twins for more than 100 toxins found in sea snail venom. Subsequently, they took X-rays of the toxin, which showed potential. “We could see that the structure of the toxin from the venom of the sea snail resembles somatostatin, a hormone that regulates the sensation of pain in the human body. This suggests that the toxin may have a similar effect,” says Helena Safavi, Professor at the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

“I was surprised that the toxin was so effective and that it lasted longer than morphine,” Safavi added.

Conus rolani lives at a depth of 210 meters in the waters off the coast of Cebu in the Philippines. This species is just one of over 800 species of sea snails, most of which use venom to hunt. The hunting strategy of Conus rolani is more efficient than other species. Having poisoned its prey with poison, the snail waits patiently. The poison begins to act, and after three hours the victim becomes inactive, then the snail catches it with its toothless mouth. A weakened fish cannot resist and injure the hunter. A similar strategy exists in rattlesnakes and vipers, but researchers are seeing it for the first time in a snail.

Not only sea snails inspire researchers to develop new drugs, says Helena Safavi. “There is a fairly common drug on the market called Capoten, used to treat high blood pressure, and it is based on snake venom,” she explains. “We can learn a lot from nature. And this makes sense, because nature has had millions of years to perfect, for example, sedative poisons, when we have been doing this for only a couple of hundred years. Therefore, nature offers us a shortcut.”