How snail venom could spawn new insulin, pain meds

They’re icky, slimy, slow and, maybe to some, creepy. But snails might lead to the next breakthrough in treatments for pain and diabetes.

Two studies published recently by University of Utah researchers found potential breakthroughs in somatostatin-analog pain relief and fast-uptake insulin from the highly potent venom cone snails use to stun and sedate their prey.

The more recent study, published in Science Advances, found that Consomatin Ro1, a peptide found in the venom of one particular kind of cone snail, had a similar affect to morphine when injected in mice.

This isn’t the first time researchers have looked to snail venom for pain medication. The powerful chronic pain med Prialt (ziconotide)—developed by Elan and now owned by TerSera Therapeutics—was approved by the FDA in 2004 and was based on research into cone snail venom from the same university.

“Cone snail venom is like a natural library of compounds,” said Iris Bea Ramiro, Ph.D., an adjunct faculty member at Utah and co-author of the somatostatin study, in a press release. “It is just a matter of finding what is in that library.” Like some of her co-authors, Ramiro is from the University of Copenhagen, and her research is what isolated the peptide this study was based on.

Medications based on the hormone somatostatin are nothing new, although many of the more well-known drugs, like Novartis’ Sandostatin and Ipsen’s Somatuline, are using it to suppress growth hormones rather than treat pain. Somatostatin’s power as a general inhibitor makes its analogs attractive candidates for many different kinds of treatment.

The researchers are still trying to assess whether Consomatin Ro1 works better than the somatostatin analogs already available, but it isn’t just about this one peptide. “The advantage with the cone snails … is that there are so many species,” said one of the authors, Helena Safavi, Ph.D., in a press release. “And we know that many of these species make somatostatin, so the chances of finding the best analog might be pretty high.”

The wealth of available venom formulations was something the other study, published in Nature Chemical Biology, also emphasized in its search for more effective insulin. The researchers actually created two variations on fast-acting insulin for the study based on venom from different types of cone snails.

One of the big obstacles with insulin injections is that, in the human body, the molecule is designed to be created and then stored for later use. Because of that function, human insulin molecules are prone to pair up and create clusters for easier storage. This means that when diabetics inject themselves with insulin, they have to wait for the clusters to break up before their bodies can process the substance, which makes glucose regulation difficult and opens the door to potential complications.

 “The cone snail doesn’t need to have insulin for storage. It wants to have something that very quickly acts to paralyze fish,” Safavi, who was also an author on this study, explained in a press release. “And when we looked at the insulin, we found that it doesn’t come together in six insulin molecules. It’s just a single insulin that acts in the fish prey.”

Researchers and pharma companies have developed types of insulin that don’t cluster as much and therefore take less time for the body to use, but because the snail venom is meant to stun and paralyze prey very quickly, it’s even more fast-acting than anything currently on the market.

“We can spend a lot of time trying to design good hormone drugs, or we could try to look at nature more often,” Safavi added. “And I think if we did the latter, we might be more successful or we might be faster in our drug development efforts.”