Sea snail key to future of pain relief

11 Dec 2006

Unique research at The University of Queensland could revolutionise the treatment of pain relief – thanks to a humble sea snail. 

Dr Jenny Ekberg, a Research Fellow with UQ's School of Biomedical Sciences, has studied a toxin produced by a marine snail found on the Great Barrier Reef, which has the ability to precisely target chronic pain without severe side-effects. 

“Chronic pain can be caused by an initial injury that affects the nerves, or conditions such as diabetes and arthritis,” Dr Ekberg said. 

“The problem with current drugs, such as morphine, is that they sometimes offer only marginal relief and come coupled with lots of problems with tolerance and side-effects. 

“Our research show that a natural product, a conotoxin from the marine snail Conus marmoreus, produces pain relief without apparent side-effects in animal models of chronic pain.” 

The study, done with colleagues Professor David Adams in the School of Biomedical Sciences, Dr Richard Lewis at UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience and Professor Mac Christie at the University of Sydney, was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Dr Ekberg said with approximately one in five Australians suffering from chronic pain at some point in their life, the potential benefit of this research could be enormous. 

She said sufferers of chronic pain can have the added problem of being diagnosed with no reason for the pain. 

“The patient experiences severe pain because their nerve cells that are responsible for pain transmission are overactive,” she said. 

“This is primarily due to abnormal activity of voltage-gated sodium channels in the nerve cells. 

“Conventional drugs, such as local anaesthetics, block all types of sodium channels, causing severe side-effects. 

“Our toxin only blocks a specific channel – the first time a toxin like this has been shown to work – therefore providing pain relief without severe side-effects.” 

Dr Ekberg said it would be a number of years before such a treatment would be commercially available. 

Originally from Sweden, Dr Ekberg came to UQ to complete her Honours in Biomedical Sciences and stayed to complete a PhD, from which this research stemmed, under the supervision of Professor David Adams and Associate Professor Phil Poronnik. 

Dr Ekberg said she has since remained at UQ because of a combination of high-class research and a wonderful environment.