Could the world's most deadly snake also be the source of the world's most effective painkiller?
Researchers have discovered that two small proteins found in the black mamba's venom called mambalgins have the ability to be as effective a painkiller as morphine. Best of all, it doesn't cause the side effects associated with morphine, which can include irregular breathing, blue or purple color to the skin, fast or slow heartbeats, seizures, hallucinations and swelling according to the National Institutes of Health. The researchers told the BBC that because mambalgins use a different method to stop pain, it should produce fewer side-effects.
Researchers screened several types of venom for acid-sensing ion channels (ASIC) inhibitors. ASICs are found on the surface of some nerve cells and can detect pain, Ars Technica explained. When activated they allow charged "pain" ions into the nerve cells. Then a message of pain is sent through a nerve impulse to the brain.
The mambalgins was tested on mice, who experience pain similar to the way people do. It worked both when injected at the site of the injury and when given regularly. Further tests were conducted on human cells in a laboratory and suggest they would block pain in people as well. The mambalgins were shown to stop ASICs from allowing charged ions to send pain messages through periphery nerves or to the brain.
"Pain pathways are pretty well conserved between mice and humans, making us confident that these peptides will also be efficient in humans," study leader Anne Baron, a molecular physiologist at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology in Valbonne, France, said to National Geographic.
Dr. Nicholas Casewell, an expert in snake venom at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said to the BBC that it was surprising that the black mamba would produce this kind of painkiller, but it may work to prevent prey from getting away in the wild.
"It's very exciting, it's a really great example of drugs from venom, we're talking about an entirely new class of analgesics," he said.
This wouldn't be the first time that venom toxins were turned into pharmaceutical drugs. Zoltan Takacs, a herpetologist and toxinologist, told National Geographic that animal toxins are often used in research for new medications because they help you determine how to target your drug and provide a "blueprint" for your medication.
"Animal venom toxins have a solid success rate (becoming) major drugs," Takacs said. "There's no question this will continue, as the vast majority of toxins remain unexplored."
The study was published in Nature on Oct. 3.