6 October 1999

The poison chalice of a humble marine snail is fast becoming the Holy Grail of pain relieving drugs.

Researchers from the University of Queensland's Centre for Drug Design and Development (3-D Centre) in collaboration with Australian pharmaceutical company AMRAD Operations have isolated tiny proteins or peptides from the venom of 50 species of Great Barrier Reef cone shell snails.

The venom has been purified, sequenced and synthesised with the extracted peptides shown to have great potential as highly selective pain-killing drugs.

Work on conotoxins as a drugs lead started in Australia 20 years ago by the late Professor Bob Endean of the University's Zoology Department who first identified the potential of cone shell snail venom for pharmaceuticals.

Since then, the 3-D Centre's Venom Research Group headed by Professor Peter Andrews, Associate Professor Paul Alewood and Dr Richard Lewis have used state-of-the-art technology to isolate potential peptides for new drugs.

"Some of the most exciting conotoxins work by blocking specific calcium channels within nerve cells. These channels are missed by current pain-relieving drugs with the effect that relief wears off quickly," Dr Lewis said.

The research forms part of the University's new Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) - the centrepiece of a $100 million research complex being developed by the University in conjunction with the CSIRO and other research agencies - which will establish Brisbane as Australia's centre of excellence in molecular biology and biotechnology and a major hub for bioindustries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Cone shell snails range in length from 1cm to 15cm and produce their venom in a special duct that delivers the toxins through a proboscis in their mouths. Prey such as fish, worms or molluscs are literally harpooned and injected with the lethal cocktail during nightly hunting missions. 3-D Centre staff must "milk" between 50 and 100 cone shell snails to get enough venom for their initial experiments after which the desired substances are synthesised to produce commercial quantities.

The Venom Research Group is forming a company Xenome Ltd to discover and develop new drugs and drug leads from venoms and toxins of Australian aquatic and land creatures, particularly marine cone shell species.

For more information, contact Dr Richard Lewis at the University of Queensland (telephone 07 3365 1924) or Jonathan Coates at AMRAD (telephone 03 9208 4094).