Researchers are studying a paralyzing toxin found in the venom of cone snails for use in therapeutic treatment of a range of human neurological diseases and brain disorders, from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to depression and addiction.
"Killer" Snail Venom Can Help Treat Nerve Diseases, Disorders
ED YEATES, reporting:
This ocean dwelling, slow moving cone snail can't chase down its next dinner. so instead, he stretches out a little tube that catches a nearby fish off guard. A dart like tooth paralyzes the prey in just a few seconds. And it's not just this snail.
The venom from this particular snail called conus geographis could kill a human. We’re talking about paralysis and a shut down of the respiratory system within about ten minutes.
But inside this beautiful shell of another cone snail, University of Utah Brain Institute researchers have found a toxic brew that while deadly in one form, becomes therapeutic in another.
DR. MICHAEL MCINTOSH (University of Utah Brain Institute): If something in the nervous system is overactive by shutting down that overactive process with a toxin there's actually a benefit to it.
YEATES: That abnormal neurological overactivity displays itself in many ways: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, depression and bi-polar illnesses, schizophrenia, tobacco and alcohol addiction. Dr. Michael McIntosh, Baldomero Olivera and others have found unusual nerve molecules within the toxin that lock into what are called nicotinic receptors in the brain.
MCINTOSH: That selectivity is important because you want it to have the therapeutic action without having the side effects.
YEATES: Those nicotinic receptors are there for other reasons than to be stimulated by a cigarette. McIntosh says there's a whole subset of them controlling the release of numerous chemicals to neurons - chemicals like seratonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and more. Finding a new way to control these chemicals when they're out of balance.
MCINTOSH: What can be a poison for a fish can sometimes be a medicine for a person.
YEATES: So goes the new research. I’m Ed Yeates for NBC News.
Australian wildlife, by popular account, so brims with venom that the average Outback spider could dispatch you with an octuple-eyed glare. The description for the National Geographic show "Australia's Deadliest Attacks," for instance, reads: "Whether it walks, crawls, swims or hops, even the unlikeliest animal could be one of Australia's killers."
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