Killer Snail — Or Future Lifesaver?

Cone snail venom could be used to develop pain and cancer treatments in the future

A cone snail's venom can paralyze and kill its prey — without an ounce of pain. Now that same venom may also be used to attack human illness.

Despite the cone snail's ability to kill humans, its venom pain factor — or lack thereof — has captured the attention of researchers for decades. Just one of these sea snails can contain painkillers more than 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to one 2013 study from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia.

Now the latest study from UQ has discovered thousands of new peptides (chains of molecules that make up proteins) in the venom of one kind of cone snail.

According to researchers, this venom could hold the key to creating new drugs to treat pain and cancer.

"We also discovered six original 'frameworks' — 3-D-shaped molecules suitable as drug leads — which we expect will support drug development in the near future," said study co-author Dr. Paul F. Alewood, a professor in chemistry and structural biology at UQ, in a press release. "We expect these newly discovered frameworks will also lead to new medications, which can be used to treat pain, cancer and a range of other diseases."

In the past 25 years, there have been 25 other such frameworks discovered.

According to Tech Times, Dr. Alewood and team used a new method of analyzing the cone snail and its venom, which included bioinformatics (computers that analyze protein structures).

"We anticipate there are a lot more interesting molecules to be found in the venom of other species, and we are keen to explore these using our new approach," Dr. Alewood said.

The Conus episcopatus is a species of sea snail. These snails are just one of 700 species of cone snails on the eastern coast of Australia, according to UQ.

This study was published July 6 in the journal PNAS.

Funding sources were not available at time of publication. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.