However, French researchers say the results suggest the snake venom works by targeting a different pain pathway in the brain. They believe this could eventually lead to a new generation of pain killers.
A UK snake venom expert has described the findings as "exciting".
“It is essential to understand pain better to develop new analgesics,” researcher Sylvie Diochot of the Institut de Pharmacologie Mole ́culaire et Cellulaire, in Valbonne, France, and colleagues write in the journal Nature. The black mamba findings, she says, help with both of those goals.
The black mamba snake is Africa’s longest venomous snake and grows up to 14 feet in length. Its aggressive nature and lethal venom has given it a reputation as the world’s deadliest snake.
Previous studies have shown that compounds in snake venom can cause pain by activating what’s called specific acid-sensing ion channels (ASICs).
Fewer side effects
In this study, researchers found that a newly discovered class of compounds in black mamba snake venom called mambalgins can relieve pain by targeting and blocking these channels.
Their experiments in mice show the mambalgins are not toxic and have fewer side effects than traditional pain killers like morphine.
Researchers say their results should lead to a better understanding of pain and introduce natural compounds that may lead to the development of new painkillers.
Nicholas Casewell, an expert in snake venom at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, tells BootsWebMD that the findings are a surprise "as the biological advantage to the snake is not immediately apparent".
He continues: "However, snake venoms contain mixtures of many proteins, so it may be that these particular analgesics are working alongside other components, such as inhibitors of eurotransmission, to cause paralysis and subdue the prey so that it can be eaten."
Nicholas Casewell has recently highlighted the potential of snake venom as a source of future medicines. He says: "This appears to be a novel type of painkiller that works via a different mechanism than existing opiate painkillers. For this reason the finding is particularly exciting, especially when considering its potency was comparable/greater than morphine.
"However, there is a long way to go before these proteins can be developed into a new painkiller for human use. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic example of how 'natural products', such as venoms, can be utilised to provide targets for developing the next generation of human pharmaceuticals."
Diochot, S. Nature, published online 3rd October 2012.
Nicholas Casewell, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) postdoctoral fellow, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
Press release, Nature.
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