Sea snail key to future of pain relief
Published: 11 December 2006
Unique research at The University of Queensland could revolutionise
the treatment of pain relief – thanks to a humble sea snail.
Dr Jenny Ekberg, a Research Fellow with UQ's School of Biomedical
Sciences, has studied a toxin produced by a marine snail found on the
Great Barrier Reef, which has the ability to precisely target chronic
pain without severe side-effects.
“Chronic pain can be caused by an initial injury that affects the
nerves, or conditions such as diabetes and arthritis,” Dr Ekberg said.
“The problem with current drugs, such as morphine, is that they
sometimes offer only marginal relief and come coupled with lots of
problems with tolerance and side-effects.
“Our research show that a natural product, a conotoxin from the
marine snail Conus marmoreus, produces pain relief without apparent
side-effects in animal models of chronic pain.”
The study, done with colleagues Professor David Adams in the School
of Biomedical Sciences, Dr Richard Lewis at UQ's Institute for
Molecular Bioscience and Professor Mac Christie at the University of
Sydney, was recently published in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences.
Dr Ekberg said with approximately one in five Australians suffering
from chronic pain at some point in their life, the potential benefit
of this research could be enormous.
She said sufferers of chronic pain can have the added problem of
being diagnosed with no reason for the pain.
“The patient experiences severe pain because their nerve cells that
are responsible for pain transmission are overactive,” she said.
“This is primarily due to abnormal activity of voltage-gated sodium
channels in the nerve cells.
“Conventional drugs, such as local anaesthetics, block all types of
sodium channels, causing severe side-effects.
“Our toxin only blocks a specific channel – the first time a toxin
like this has been shown to work – therefore providing pain relief
without severe side-effects.”
Dr Ekberg said it would be a number of years before such a treatment
would be commercially available.
Originally from Sweden, Dr Ekberg came to UQ to complete her Honours
in Biomedical Sciences and stayed to complete a PhD, from which this
research stemmed, under the supervision of Professor David Adams and
Associate Professor Phil Poronnik.
Dr Ekberg said she has since remained at UQ because of a combination
of high-class research and a wonderful environment.