A compound in the venom of Chinese red-headed centipedes could lead to a new painkiller that’s stronger and less addictive than morphine.
Pain can be extremely difficult to treat since the experience is highly subjective and current medicines have proven to be wildly addictive. But researchers think that Chinese red-headed centipedes could lead to the solution — a potent painkilling property in their venom might yield a treatment that is just as effective as morphine, but without the risk of addiction.
So will centipede venom be the painkiller of the future? Professor Lai Ren, the lead author of the study, told the South China Morning Post that the ultimate goal of his team’s research is to create a painkiller for longterm use that doesn’t create health risks for the user. Centipede venom, he says, serves as a beacon of hope in this quest.
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Despite the addictive properties and potentially bad side effects, painkillers are essential for those with chronic pain — from cancer patients to soldiers dealing with post-war injuries. That’s why Ren’s team decided to investigate if certain venoms and poisons could provide an alternative to drugs like codeine and morphine.
The logic behind their research was hinged on the notion that if a chemical can activate pain, there must be a way to reverse the mechanism to achieve the opposite effect. Through years of research, scientists identified the pain-related compound RhTx, just one of the many sophisticated chemical compounds in centipede venom.
The researchers found that the target of the centipede’s toxin is a specific sodium channel — a pore in the membrane of neurons that generates electrical impulses. Humans have nine types of sodium channels, controlling many different aspects of the nervous system, but insects have only one. It’s likely that centipedes evolved their venom to kill insects by knocking out their entire nervous system, but in humans, this specific sodium channel is only responsible for translating damaging stimuli to a feeling of pain in the brain, reports Live Science.
The researchers tested the compound out by giving it to mice and then subjecting the animals to pain from various sources, like acid and heat. Amazingly, mice who were given the compound experienced much less pain than control mice. Not only was the drug’s pain relief equivalent to that of opioids, but the researchers found no side effects or risk of addiction. They expect the side effects in humans would also be minimal.
Glenn King, a molecular scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia and one of the study's authors, estimates it will take two years to determine how the chemical will affect humans, and five years until clinical trials. But the potential to create safe, non-addictive painkillers that could replace the current risky ones is nothing short of phenomenal.
To add to the excitement, centipedes aren’t the only insects with painkilling venom. The venom of cone snails and black mamba snakes have also produced promising results.
Dr. Nicholas Casewell, an expert in snake venom at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the U.K., told the BBC, "It's very exciting, it's a really great example of drugs from venom; we're talking about an entirely new class of analgesics."