Unlocking Nature's Pain Medicine

Scientists are discovering powerful ingredients in natural toxins to create painkillers and relieve suffering. CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports.

Steve Cole's battle with cancer pain goes back three decades. "It s been bad enough to knock me out. I mean I just passed out from the pain," says Cole.

While high doses of morphine dimmed Cole's pain, they dulled his mind and threatened his life. Then, when Steve's doctor tried an experimental new drug, derived from the venom of a sea snail, the pain and tumor disappeared.

"On the morphineÂ… I was just at a functional level, says Cole. "With this, I feel like I'm alive."

The cone snail uses

it's venom on the end of a dart to kill fish. When it was analyzed in a California laboratory, researchers found one chemical in the venom, ziconitide, could kill something else.

"Ziconitide is an excellent pain killing drug. It's a thousand times more powerful than morphine. It doesn't develop tolerance like morphine," says Dr. George Miljanic of Neurex-Elan Pharmaceuticals.

Steve Borello is desperately hoping it works for him. A motorcycle accident 15 years ago left him with pain no drug could even touch.

"It feels like you have a part of your body over a hot flame and you are being burned," says Borello.

Ziconitide works by blocking chemicals that transmit pain signals between nerve cells. To get the best effect the drug is applied directly to the spinal canal, through a catheter and special pump, where it stops pain messages from reaching the brain.

This new pharmaceutical from the sea is just the latest example of science turning to the painkilling powers of nature. Remember that the earliest analgesics, morphine and asprin both came from plants.

Nature, it has been said, creates chemicals that scientists could never imagine.

Some are exotic like the toxin from the Ecuadorean tree frog called Epibatidine. It also shows powerful painkilling promise in humans.

Perhaps the most natural way to control pain will come from the common dairy cow.

Dr. Fred Burgess has been testing a new spinal implant containing cells from the adrenal glands of cows. Like our own adrenal cells, they produce Enkephalin, one of the most powerful painkillers known to man.

"We know that the body has a natural system for controlling pain. The problem is, in some patients, it s just not active enough. In some cases, the pain signal is just overwhelming to the body's natural painkillers," explains Burgess.

In early tests on terminal cancer patients, the cell implants lasted up to a year and in some cases gave complete relief with no side effects.

Ziconitide has given Steven Cole back his life and allowed him to go back to work after 0 years on disability. It's hoped these lessons learned from nature will soon help thousands of others to live pain free.

Reported By John Roberts