Mar 26, 2022 - Science

Study: Cone snails' venom contains painkilling compound

The deep-water cone snail, Conus neocostatus, catching a fish. Photo: Dylan Taylor/University of Utah
The deep-water cone snail, Conus neocostatus, catching a fish. Photo: Dylan Taylor/University of Utah

The potent venom of a cone snail that lives deep in the ocean contains a pain-suppressing compound, scientists reported this week.

Why it matters: The compound is similar to a hormone that inhibits pain in the human body, but the snail version lasts far longer and could be used to help develop new pain medicines.

The details: There are more than 1,000 species of cone snails, each with a different cocktail of toxins in their venom.

  • Researchers were studying one group — the Asprella clade — when they discovered the snail used a hunting strategy that hadn't been observed in the animal before.
  • Instead of the taser-and-tether tactic in which a snail injects its venom and stays attached to the fish and quickly eats it, Asprella inject their venom and go back into their shell to wait. Once the fish is dead — which takes one to three hours with Asprella venom — the snail swallows it.
  • That is "a very unusual predation behavior which made us think the toxins they make are unusual," says Helena Safavi-Hemami, a biologist at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the study published in Science Advances.

What they found: When the researchers studied the snail's venom, they found a molecule similar to the hormone somatostatin that suppresses pain in the human body.

  • But unlike short-lived human and synthetic versions, the snail's compound — dubbed Conosomatin Ro1 — has a half-life of more than 158 hours, they report.
  • And it binds to two of the five receptors in humans that activate pain inhibition, suggesting it would work in people.
  • They also studied Conosomatin Ro1's effect in mice and found higher doses of the compound decreased their sensitivity to pain.

Background: Cone snails also make a form of insulin that is being used to try to improve insulin drugs, Safavi-Hemami says.

  • "They’ve had millions of years to evolve the best compounds."

What's next: There are hundreds of toxins arranged in potentially thousands of combinations of venoms, Safavi-Hemami says.

  • Next, the team wants to "survey other cone snail species and find the very best cone snail toxin."
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