Next-gen painkillers from nature’s deadliest life forms

23 July 2018

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In nature, you don’t have to be the biggest or the brawniest to ensure your survival. Through millions of years of evolution, animals such as snakes, spiders, and jellyfish have ended up with some of the nastiest venoms known to science, and their ability to inflict sheer agony on their prey has caught the attention of researchers who are focused on just that – pain.

Associate Professor Irina Vetter from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) at The University of Queensland is figuring out how to manipulate venom extracted from some of the deadliest species in the world, to combat the various forms of pain we humans experience.

As a qualified pharmacist, she’s interested in using compounds found in nature to produce new kinds of medicine that can target specific pain pathways in the body.

“I’m focused on understanding the individual mechanisms that contribute to different types of pain, so we can be a bit smarter about how we treat them,” Vetter explains.

“We’re just beginning to understand that not all pain is the same. The mechanisms that lead to pain are very different, and depend on the condition.” 

What’s in platypus venom?

So far, Vetter has explored the venom produced by organisms such as spiders, snakes, and yes, even platypuses.

“One of the aspects we study is how this venom causes pain, with the view that if you understand how something causes pain, you might discover new ways of how to block pain,” she says.   

Venom is made up of a complex cocktail of thousands of different molecules that can inflict a severe physiological effect if you happen to be bitten or stung. 

Individually, these molecules can act on a particular nervous system receptor or pain-signalling pathway in the body, and by figuring out how to turn them on or off, researchers are able to use them for pain relief instead.

“It’s like a treasure trove of molecules that nature has designed to have a very potent and selective activity on peripheral nerves and that’s what we are exploiting,” Vetter says.

A particular spider venom molecule isolated by Vetter and her team has been found to reduce the pain experienced by post-surgical patients and those who diagnosed with the very rare man-on-fire syndrome.

Known technically as erythromelalgia, this inherited condition is characterised by intense, burning pain in the hands and feet, and severe redness. There is no known cure, so patients have to manage their symptoms through medication and cooling.

According to Vetter, a new treatment based on their spider molecule could minimise the need for opioids (medicines with morphine-like effects) and have the added benefit of not being addictive - a major concern when it comes to current pain-killing drugs.

Better treatments on the horizon

Even though people rarely die from pain alone, chronic pain is linked to a high risk of suicide. Vetter explains that many types of pain are problematic to treat, because what an individual experiences is subjective, and the underlying mechanisms can be quite different between conditions.

Right now, the treatment of pain and related healthcare services costs Australia $30 billion annually, and Vetter says we need to figure out how to make more targeted medications, because even the best painkillers available are not nearly as effective as they could be. 

"From a pharmaceutical company perspective, you want to have a big 'blockbuster' drug that will treat everything," she explains. 

"Some of the big painkillers achieve 50 per cent pain reduction in 30 per cent of patients and that's considered the gold standard. I think there's quite a lot of room for improvement."

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