New painkiller, Prialt, based on the venom of a sea snail will be available in Britain from today.
The drug Prialt, or ziconotide, has resulted from over 20 years' of research by the scientist, Baldomera Olivera, a professor at the University of Utah.
The advantage of Prialt is that it is 1,000 times more potent than morphine but not addictive like morphine. It is mainly aimed at people suffering from severe, chronic pain who are usually treated with morphine.
The drug is administered by injection into the fluid around the spine. It has become the first non-opioid painkiller that is administered in this method to be approved in Europe.
As many as one in seven people have been known to suffer from chronic pain. Arthritis and back pain are the commonest causes of chronic pain in addition to headache and injury.
While painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen that are administered orally are the first resort those whose pain still persists can be treated with painkillers injected into the spinal fluid, using a pump worn by the patient.
Prialt is a synthetic version of the venom used by the sea snail Conus magus, popularly known as the Magician's Cone Snail, to hunt prey.
As a boy Professor Olivera used to collect the shells of these snails and study them. These two-inch sized snails shoots out a thin worm like tube into fish swimming by. When the venom is injected into the fish it is paralyzed and can be swallowed whole.
A teenager, Michael McIntosh, who started to help with the research soon after leaving school, discovered the venom. Now, 25 years later, he is a research psychiatrist at the University of Utah and still works with Professor Olivera.
On analysis of the venom they identified one peptide that stopped nerve cells from sending signals to the brain. It does this by blocking the calcium channels on the nerves, which transmit pain signals. After the channels are blocked, calcium is unable to enter the cells, and thereby pain signals are blocked from traveling between nerve cells.
Professor Olivera believes that there are still more secrets to unravel from the sea snail. According to him there are 500 different types of these sea snails with each producing around 100 toxins in its venom. He hopes that drugs use to treat a wide range of conditions, from Parkinson's disease to depression may be derived from them.