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SALT LAKE CITY — A team of University of Utah researchers has been awarded a $10 million grant from the U.S Department of Defense to study an unlikely subject: snails.
Researchers will use the funds to try to find new natural pain-fighting compounds that could be used as alternatives to opioids, according to a news release from U. public relations representative Stacy W. Kish.
One such compound might be present in venom found in a carnivorous snail native to the Caribbean Sea known as the Conus regius.
“We really hope that we will find a drug that could be as effective for severe pain as opioids but has far less side effects and is not addictive,” Russell Teichert, research associate professor in the Department of Biology, said in the release.
The U. of U. Health researchers on the team have expertise in biology, anesthesiology, pharmacology and medicinal chemistry. The grant will be distributed over four years.
The marine snail doesn’t have arms or teeth but uses venom to numb, stun and subdue its prey.
The research team had previously determined that venom from the Conus regius had potentially analgesic, or numbing, properties. That’s central to this current U. study, Kish said in the release.
Team members will use rodents that mimic chronic pain in humans to evaluate the effectiveness of any potential pain-fighting compounds they find in the Conus regius.
Researchers also will study “underutilized biological pathways” that could help reduce the sensation of pain, Kish said.
The research team previously used venom from another marine snail to develop the drug Prialt, which treats severe pain for patients fighting cancer, AIDS, failed back surgery and other nervous system disorders. It was approved by the FDA in 2004.
The researchers hope to find drugs that have the benefits of opioids but lack the destructive effects.
“Societal dependence on opioid drugs has created an urgent need to find alternatives to these medications to treat chronic pain,” J. Michael McIntosh, M.D., professor of psychiatry at U. of U. Health and contributor to this project, said in the release. “This project turns to ocean organisms to identify the next generation of therapeutic pain medications."