Jan 06, 2023 10:00 AM

Read time: 3 minutes

Author: Carley Lehauli

Baldomero Olivera, PhD
Baldomero Olivera, PhD

It may sound counterintuitive, but researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute may have found a new source of relief for patients with cancer – poisonous cone snails. The research of Michael McIntosh, MD, and Baldomero Olivera, PhD, members of the experimental therapeutics program at Huntsman Cancer Institute, led to the development of PRIALT, a groundbreaking pain medication.

Cone snails use their venom to immobilize their prey—fish. Fish have the same molecules as humans, which means scientists were able to use the venom to create an effective method of pain relief. As researchers work to create more, Olivera answers questions about how the science works and the new possibilities for pain medications.

How does venom from a cone snail become a pain medication?

When you have very severe pain, nerve fibers start sending electrical signals to the central nervous system. There’s a gap between the end of the pain fiber and the nerve cell in the spinal cord, which is an important synapse that the electrical signal has to cross in order to be transmitted. The venom peptides actually block the synapse, so even though the pain fibers are sending electrical signals saying something is painful, the spinal cord and brain never receive that message.

Are pain medications with cone snail venom already in use?

There is already a pain medication that is approved and being used now at Huntsman Cancer Institute, but several factors limit its use. The main reason this medication isn’t used more widely is because of its cost. Another reason is you have to pump into a patient’s spine to administer it. Even though this medication isn’t as accessible, we are working on others that hopefully will be.

What pain medications are there for cancer patients?

It's very limited, almost nothing new other than PRIALT. There’s a great need for pain medications in the cancer community.

How can this pain medication benefit cancer patients?

Certain chemotherapy protocols are limited and that means patients often feel pain for a long time after treatment. This common symptom is called allodynia. This occurs when something causes pain that usually doesn’t, like holding a cold glass of water. We are currently looking at a venom peptide that could prevent the pain, which would allow doctors to increase the dosage and length of chemotherapy, so it's much more effective.

What other pain medications may become available to patients in the future?

We have one in the preclinical trial phase and another that has completed phase one. We are currently trying to get the former to meet FDA approvals, move it out of preclinical trial phase, and into phase one. For the second medication that has passed phase one, we are working on funding for phase two.

cancer care cancer research clinical trials