Africa's black mamba snake is one of the most poisonous snakes on Earth, and yet scientists are discovering that certain elements of the their lethal venom could actually be used as powerful pain relief, without the side-effects associated with known pain relievers like morphine.
Previous research has focused on what it is about snake venom that causes pain. Studies have shown that some other animal venoms contain toxins that activate acid sensing ion channels (ASICs) in the central and peripheral nervous system; this is what causes pain from a bite or scratch. Scientists from France's Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology decided to explore this further in snake venom and they hit upon the black mamba.
The study found that peptides within the black mamba venom the team named "mambalgins," can in isolation, minimize or stop pain altogether by inhibiting the acid-sensing ion channels.
The research team, led by the Institute's Anne Baron, purified the mambalgins into a drug to test the effect on mice.
"Pain pathways are pretty well conserved between mice and humans, making us confident that these peptides will also be efficient in humans," Baron told National Geographic News.
The mice that received the drug seemed to be more resilient than those that didn't. The researchers believe the drug could be as strong as opioids such morphine, but without side effects of respiratory distress, addiction and other problems. The reason is the drug made from snake venom focuses on different areas than the opioid receptors that are targeted by morphine.
Animal venoms and toxins found in nature have long been studied and used for their surprising medicinal purposes. They can do everything from treat wrinkles and blood clots to help researchers develop new drugs. Like plant toxins and compounds, they represent a growing area of research that over time could create exciting new treatments.
As for the mambalgins, Baron and her fellow researchers have issued a patent for their discovery and will work towards turning the unlikely pain reliever into a commercially viable drug over time.
The results of Baron's work will be published in and upcoming edition of Nature.