The cone snail possesses a double-edged sword – actually, it’s more like a venom-injecting harpoon. On one hand, the venom, which the predatory sea snail uses to paralyse fish prey, can be fatal in humans; yet on the other, it acts as an effective painkiller. Its poison contains a cocktail of more than 100 different proteins called conotoxins, many of which target a specific receptor. This means that they can quickly turn off a single nerve type, such as pain receptors. Researchers have now provided new insights into how one conotoxin – known as Vc1.1 – inhibits pain. Pain blockers commonly directly obstruct calcium channels – the miniature gateways that transmit signals between nerve cells – but not VC1.1; it acts through a different receptor called GABA type B. With this knowledge a synthetic Vc1.1 might now be developed to treat neuropathic pain, long-term pain linked to injury to the nervous system.
Written by Nick Kennedy
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