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Super-Toxic Snake Venom Could Yield New Painkillers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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black mamba snake venom pain killer

Image of black mamba snake courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bill Love/Blue Chameleon Ventures

A bite from the black mamba snake (Dendroaspis polylepis) can kill an adult human within 20 minutes. But mixed in with that toxic venom is a new natural class of compound that could be used to help develop new painkillers.

Named “mambalgins,” these peptides block acute and inflammatory pain in mice as well as morphine does, according to a new study.

Researchers, led by Sylvie Diochot, of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology at Nice University, Sophia Antipolis in France, purified the peptides from the venom and profiled the compounds’ structure. They then were able to test the mambalgins in strains of mice with various genetic tweaks to their pain pathways. Diochot and her colleagues determined that the mambalgins work by blocking an as-yet untargeted set of neurological ion channels associated with pain signals. The findings were published online October 3 in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

As a bonus, mambalgins did not have the risky side effect of respiratory depression that morphine does. And the mice developed less tolerance to them over time than is typical with morphine.

black mamba snake venom painkillers

Image of black mamba's black mouth courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Tad Arensmeier

Experimenting with the newfound compounds should also help researchers learn more about the mechanisms that drive pain. As the researchers noted in their paper, “It is essential to understand pain better to develop new analgesics. The black mamba peptides discovered here have the potential to address both of these aims.”

Venoms from plenty of other species of animals, including spiders, scorpions, ants and even snails, have also been studied for their analgesic potential.

Just don’t try extracting any of this venom in the wild. There is antivenom for the black mamba snake’s bite, but it is not always available, and without it, the bites are usually fatal. These snakes can move along at speeds up to about 20 kilometers per hour and grow to up to 4.4 meters in length.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Meek Millz 2:58 pm 10/3/2012

    I wonder if snake venom has ever been used as a pain killer before. I am extremely afraid of VENOMOUS snakes, but others I can deal with, so if I had to get any of this venom, I wouldn’t confront this snake. I would use a snare trap or something.

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  2. 2. gooner 3:39 pm 10/3/2012

    This brings up something I have always wondered about. Are insect poison or snake venoms being used to fight tumors? What application is there involving injecting venom or poison into tumors to have them attacked from within? Just curious.

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 4:16 pm 10/3/2012

    @Meek “I wonder if snake venom has ever been used as a pain killer before.” you certainly feel no pain after you’re dead. You probably don’t want a job as a snake milker then.

    @gooner, keep in mind that when dealing with cancer you want to kill cancer cells and minimize killing healthy cells which is tough considering cancer cells are your own cells and not easy to differentiate. The compounds in this article do not kill cells, they block signaling pathways. Killing cells with poison (toxins) is called chemotherapy.

    Also, the difference between poison and venom is that poisons are generally consumed or absorbed whereas venom is injected by an organism. So a rattlesnake isn’t poisonous because you can eat it, but it is venomous because it injects venom when it bites.

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  4. 4. kongrooo 10:30 pm 10/3/2012

    Soudns like a solid plan to me dude. Wow.

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  5. 5. greenhome123 10:34 pm 10/3/2012

    I am curious as to what the snake venom painkiller feels like. Like if it is pleasureful in addition to helping with pain relief. Maybe it could be used to wean people off of more addictive painkillers.

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  6. 6. G. Karst 10:58 pm 10/3/2012

    Unfortunately no mention is made of the key issue of synthesizing “mambalgins peptides”. “Milking” Mambas, should NOT be a full time job. GK

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  7. 7. Dredd 8:37 am 10/4/2012

    Yeah, yeah, and the Navy is going to turn sea water into jet fuel.

    Alchemy, it’s not just for second breakfy Hobbits any more.

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  8. 8. kincyboy12 10:44 am 10/4/2012

    I believe this article is good for certain things the topic but it left out certain things.

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  9. 9. mason20406 10:51 am 10/4/2012

    i think this article is very good, but could have been more specific on certain topics

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  10. 10. nick s 10:55 am 10/4/2012

    has anyone ever used snake venom for pain killers and how do we know is it safe

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  11. 11. Cobb19791 11:03 am 10/4/2012

    Where can you find this kind of snake at? Can you find one in Ohio? And if you get bit by one is there any chance of living ?

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  12. 12. isaiahshahid 2:51 pm 10/4/2012

    Can you find these types of snakes in Cleveland. This article was nice and kind of detailed. Could have been better detailed.

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  13. 13. Charnival 2:53 pm 10/4/2012

    This Blog To Me Was VERY Informational & I’m Happy I Learned Something New From It. I Never Would’ve Thought Of Anything Like This. :)

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  14. 14. yavuzhan 7:31 am 10/5/2012

    Very scary … I got goose bumps!
    seo uzmanı

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  15. 15. R.Blakely 8:52 am 10/6/2012

    In the article, K. Harmon states that “mixed in with that toxic venom is a new natural class of compound that could be used to help develop new painkillers” but she does not seem to realize that the venom could be injected into a cancer with a needle to kill the cancer. I think, the venom may also be useful as a cancer cure.

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  16. 16. Fanandala 11:47 am 10/6/2012

    @ meek milz, I remember many ( maybe 40 years ago) I used some ointment for bruises and swellings (from sport) containing cobra poison, can’t really remember how well it worked, after all, given time, swellings go down anyway.

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  17. 17. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 10:20 am 10/12/2012

    @ people asking where mambas are from: Africa. Their big claim to fame is there incredible speed.

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  18. 18. katecoors 8:06 pm 12/16/2012

    @ I take a Vicodin or a Lortab over snake venom anytime. I never thought that snake venom would work as well against pain as morphine anyways. When I was in Africa I got bit by a black mamba once. It hurt like hell too.

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