Beneath its intricate and colorful patterns lies one of the world’s most poisonous creatures – the cone snail. A sting from the one of the smaller species isn’t much worse than a bee sting. But, the larger species can deliver fatal stings to humans.

The cone snail’s venom doesn’t sound like a fix for pain, does it? Actually, it is.

“Cone snail venom is known to contain toxins proven to be valuable drug leads,” said Professor Paul Alewood, from the University of Queensland’s (UQ) Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

A new study from UQ researchers found thousands of new peptide toxins hidden deep inside the venom of just one type of Queensland cone snail.

Alewood describes cone snail venom as “a complex cocktail of many chemicals and most of these toxins have been overlooked in the past.”

“We also discovered six original ‘frameworks’ – 3D-shaped molecules suitable as drug leads – which we expect will support drug development in the near future,” said Alewood.

Why is this important? 25 known frameworks have been found over the past 25 years. Many of these eventually led to drugs for several diseases. It’s possible at least one of these six frameworks could lead to new treatments for pain, cancer or other serious diseases.

cone shells

Common species of cone shells across southeast Asia and Pacific Ocean. Credit: University of York

Who knows what else is lurking in the venom of other types of cone snails? Researchers plan to use their new method on different species of cone snails to what they turn up. With 700 different species, the possibilities of more drug leads is promising.

Researchers’ new method involved precise measurements and analysis of the venom structure. The team also observed the activity and composition of proteins within the venom and led to the discovery of thousands of new peptide toxins.

Venom as medicine isn’t new

Evidence of venom being used for ‘cures’ and treatments dates back thousands of years.

Venom is such an enticing drug target because of its properties. Mainly, its speed. Some of the same molecules targeted to incapacitate or kill its prey are the same ones needed to treat diseases.

The secret is controlling it to only target what you want. Some of the medicines used for common diseases today, such as diabetes and heart disease, originated from venom.

Researchers just found thousands of new peptide toxins within one species of cone snails. There is potential for several new medicines from this one discovery. Imagine the possibilities when researchers look at the other 700 species of cone snail. The cure (or at least better treatment) for devastating diseases and cancers could rest in a shell off the coast of Australia.

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