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Reef Report for Saturday, December 23, 2006

Great Barrier Reef Divulges Another Secret
Compound found in Cone Snell venom holds promise for pain sufferers.

Scientists from the University of Queensland recently announced that a chemical compound they had isolated from the venom a cone snail could have useful applications for sufferers of chronic pain.

The scientists were studying the venom of the Marble Cone Snail, Conus marmoreus. © University of Dusseldorf This snail has is one of many species of cone snails, is frequently spotted on the Great Barrier Reef, and is distributed through tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Besides having a beautiful shell that collectors and divers admire, this snail produces a very toxic venom, which it uses to immobilize and kill itís prey, which is usually other species of snails.

The venom is quite toxic to humans, stings are potentially fatal, and any stung should seek medical treatment immediately.

Cone snail venom is complex, and contains a mix of chemicals, each with itís own biological effect. The compound these scientists were studying was an effective painkiller, and blocks pain receptors in human nerve cells. Several other chemicals also have this effect, (such as morphine) but the side effects of many of them are significant, and the possibility of a drug that alleviates pain with fewer side effects would hold great promise.

Currently this chemical can only be purified from the venom of this species of cone shell, and the amount of venom that can be collected would make the drug derived from it extremely expensive. By further studying the molecular structure of the venom itís possible that a method of synthesizing the compound could be found. Itís also possible that the genes responsible for causing the construction of the compound could be isolated as well, making genetic recombination another way by which this compound could be produced in a less expensive manner.

There are many species of cone snails, each with itís own mix of compounds in itís venom. Conservation of coral reefs world wide is worthwhile in itself, but an additional potential benefit of effective protection of reef ecosystems is the discovery of new chemical compounds that can be used as medicines.

Coverage of this story from Reuters.

New Sciatica Drug is being trialed.

A new pain medicine derived from Cone Shell toxin goes into testing phase.

Medical treatment necessary for Cone Shell stings.

(C) DiveTheReef The weekly reef report is written by Joel Groberg of DiveTheReef.com, who compiles them from the many conversations he has with dive staff in the area, as well as† many other local sources in the dive community.

Index of all reef reports.

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