Laboratory research has found evidence that the venom that the snails inject to immobilize their prey might have beneficial effects on some heart problems, strokes, central nervous system disorders and other ills.
The latest study involved the experimental drug ziconotide, a laboratory-made equivalent of a compound in the venom of the small Conus Magus cone snail, which lives in shallow tropical saltwater.
The snail-venom research involved 111 patients ages 24 to 85 in the United States, Australia and the Netherlands. All were treated with a small, battery-operated pump implanted in their abdomens and attached to a catheter that delivered continuous medication or a dummy drug into fluid surrounding the spinal cord. Treatment lasted about 10 days; most patients were not hospitalized during that time.
The infusions produced significant relief in patients whose pain did not respond to more conventional drugs such as morphine.Pain relief was moderate to complete in 53 percent of ziconotide patients, compared with about 18 percent of the placebo group.
Serious side effects occurred in 22 ziconotide patients and four placebo patients. Subsequent research has shown that starting patients on lower doses reduces the risks, and many have remained on treatment for more than a year.
Specialists feel this new, promising kind of treatment could relieve thousands of cancer patients who suffer from intractable pain and who don't respond to the normal, conventional treatments.
Federal approval for the drug is still being sought and researchers say they expect it to become commercially available within the year.