The venom of the Conus regius sea snail, which is normally used to paralyse or kill the snail’s prey, also contains a compound that seems to offer long-lasting pain relief.
The compound was still working and still blocking pain three days after being administered in experiments with rats.
According to the American research team, the findings meant that it may be possible to create a new pain therapy for patients who had exhausted all other options.
Opioids, which are the medicines most commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain, work by reducing the perception of pain.
They do this by attaching to specific proteins in the brain and organs of the body, called opioid receptors.
But a compound known as Rg1A works in a different way using a new pathway.
Scientists from the University of Utah, writing in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the compound appeared to have a beneficial effect on parts of the nervous system.
This, in turn, could open the door to new opportunities to treat pain, they said.
The researchers added that drugs that worked in this way could reduce the use of opioids, such as morphine, which are addictive and can cause a number of serious side-effects.
According to J Michael McIntosh, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah Health Sciences: “What is particularly exciting about these results is the aspect of prevention.
“Once chronic pain has developed, it is difficult to treat,” he explained.
“This compound offers a potential new pathway to prevent pain from developing in the first place and offers a new therapy to patients who have run out of options.”
In research on rats, scientists found that pain was experienced by those animals treated with a chemotherapy drug that caused them to be hypersensitive to cold and touch. Those also treated with the snail compound did not experience pain and the relief was long lasting, moreover.
“We found that the compound was still working 72 hours after the injection, still preventing pain,” Professor McIntosh said.