Centipede venom may yield a painkiller stronger than morphine.
A chemical found in the Chinese red-headed centipede might have the potential to control pain, especially for those who have chronic conditions, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, the Australian reports.
“I am most excited by the possibility that Ssm6a might be suitable for treating patients with long-term chronic pain whose condition cannot be managed with current analgesics, particularly patients with neuropathic pain,” Glenn King, a molecular scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia and one of the study's authors, told Healthline about the peptide.
The key behind the potential painkiller lies in the centipede’s sodium channels. Unlike humans, who have nine sodium channels, insects only have one. To kill its prey, centipedes block their prey’s sodium channel, which paralyzes it, King explained.
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"Centipedes worked out hundreds of millions of years ago the easiest way to catch prey was to paralyze them by blocking their Nav channel," King told the Australian Broadcast Corporation. "We're just lucky that of the nine Nav channels in humans, it hit the one we were after."
Scientists hope to use that peptide in order to manage pain. The venom paralyzes insect prey, but the venom also contains peptides that can alter the way mammal cells function. In the case of the Chinese red-headed centipede, the venom targets a protein that carries pain signals to the brain, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Not only that, the chemical, that was tested on mice, shows no signs of addiction or abuse found in other pain medications such as morphine and oxycodone. King estimates it will take two years to determine how the chemical will affect humans, and five years until clinical trials.
Mice who were subjected to three kinds of pain were given an injection of the centipede venom. Scientists found they displayed less symptoms indicating they were in pain like paw-licking, withdrawal of tail from the heat source and abdominal writhing.
King hopes to use the venom to make a drug for those suffering from chronic pain that can’t be relieved with other treatments, like neuropathic pain. “This is not the sort of stuff we’d be developing for people with a headache,” he told The Australian.
"It's very exciting, it's a really great example of drugs from venom; we're talking about an entirely new class of analgesics," Dr. Nicholas Casewell, an expert in snake venom at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the U.K., told the BBC.