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U. gets $10 million to study mollusk venom as opioid alternative

SALT LAKE CITY — The Department of Defense has committed approximately $10 million toward research by University of Utah Health into whether the numbing venom of some ocean species could be used as an alternative to opioids in treating pain.

The grant, announced by the university last week, is expected to be distributed over four years to help researchers find out whether substances in the venom of any of hundreds of different marine mollusks, such as snails and slugs, have potential as an effective remedy for pain.

"Each has a couple hundred different components (in their venom)," said Dr. J. Michael McIntosh, a professor of psychiatry at the U. and one of the principal investigators with the project. "We're really just beginning to figure out how many are in (the venom). There are probably thousands. Which are of interest remains to be determined."

McIntosh, who is also a clinical psychiatrist at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake, said the mollusk species in question will be collected by local divers off the coast of the Philippines.

"Then either the products from the snails or the snails themselves are shipped to us for examination," he said.

Earlier this year, McIntosh and several other U. scientists published research suggesting there were encouraging properties of the venom produced by a small marine cone snail called Conus regius, saying it appeared not only to neutralize pain in rodents but also provide increased protection against the worsening of chronic pain.

"It not only seems to reduce the symptoms of pain, kind of mask the pain if you will, but there also seems to be some sort of disease-modifying (features)," he said, that "not only treat the pain but treat the pathophysiology."

In other words, there are signs indicating that particular venom helps nerves which react negatively to pain to recover "more completely and more quickly," McIntosh said. Nerves can be injured either through direct trauma, medical treatment such as chemotherapy, or a condition like diabetes, he explained.

"Over the process of time, that pain can become chronic in nature because that nerve just doesn't properly heal. ... The Conus regius seems quite well-tolerated and seems to reverse some of the associated nerve damage," McIntosh said.

The Department of Defense is intent on learning more about how treatment could improve for its soldiers, and the U.'s grant stems from that aim, according to McIntosh.

"The Department of Defense takes interest in having its soldiers not be in pain and not be disabled by addiction," he said. "Obviously, there's a lot of injuries with soldiers and that can turn into a chronic disability if not adequately treated."

The grant was approved by the federal Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program, whose stated mission is to "improve the health and well-being of all military service members, veterans and beneficiaries," according to its website.

While researchers examine the other substances with their grant, they will also be taking the examination of the Conus regius further and attempt "to develop a stable drug that can be metabolized in the body and can elicit the (pain neutralizing) effect," according to University of Utah Health Sciences writer Stacy Kish.

Kish said the project will include researchers from several disciplines: psychiatry, anesthesiology, biology, medicinal chemistry and pharmacology. The group will prioritize finding compounds that not only counteract pain, but do so using different biological pathways than opioids in order to avoid the same addictive effects.

"We don't want to find another drug that works (on the same pathways) as opioids, because it will probably have the same problems with addiction and respiratory depression, among other side effects," said Russell Teichert, a U. biology professor and one of the project's investigators, in a statement.

McIntosh echoed Teichert's warning about opioids' unintended consequences.

"Opioids have a number of well-known problems associated with them. The first is that people become tolerant to the effects and continue to need more and more medication. ... People can become addicted," he said.

Unintended overdoses on opioids also result in a lot of deaths, he added.

That's ultimately why, according to McIntosh, "we're looking at types of treatment where that's not the case."

"We really hope that we will find a drug that could be as effective for severe pain as opioids but has far less side effects and is not addictive," Teichert said.

Depending on the success of each of the substances' testing on rodents, Kish explained, they could undergo clinical testing in the future to see how their effects are expressed in humans. Still, McIntosh advised that turning promising results into a widely available, effective medication is a lengthy process.

"To develop something into a final medication obviously takes many years and hundreds of millions of dollars, so there there will have to be some other successes along the way," he said.