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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
The cone snail is one example of how genetic research on earth's biodiversity has led to biomedical innovation and discovery. Cone snail image by Richard Ling, courtesy of EOL.

A Non Addictive Treatment for Chronic Pain

Evidence shows that Ziconotide, a synthetic form of the pain impulse blocking protein conopeptide, isolated from the cone snail Conus magnus, is as much as 1,000 times more potent than morphine without the side effects of addiction or tolerance. Standard treatments for severe chronic pain involve the use of opiates such as morphine. Opiates are highly effective when first given, but with continued use they result in addiction and development of tolerance.

A Powerful Toxin

Cone snail toxins have a wide variety of receptor binding sites (molecular structures on the surfaces of cells that activate different cellular processes) and for a given class of receptor, they tend to have greater selectivity. It is the combination of exquisite selectivity and extraordinary diversity of binding sites that makes cone snail toxins among the most sought after natural compounds for biomedical research and for the development of new medicines.

A Mechanism of Defense

The cone snail both defends itself and paralyzes its prey by injecting toxic proteins through a hollow, harpoon-like tooth. Each of the estimated 700 species of snail is thought to make as many as 100 to 200 distinct peptides (small proteins), so there may be 70,000 to 140,000 peptide toxins in all.

Reference: Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstien, "Threatened Groups of Organisms Valuable to Medicine," in Sustaining Life, eds. Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 260-262.

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