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Updated: February 17, 2010 15:29 IST

Scorpion venom could replace morphine as painkiller

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Peptide toxins found in scorpion venom interact with sodium channels in nervous and muscular systems - and some of these sodium channels communicate pain, says Gurevitz. File Photo: M. Karunakaran
The Hindu
Peptide toxins found in scorpion venom interact with sodium channels in nervous and muscular systems - and some of these sodium channels communicate pain, says Gurevitz. File Photo: M. Karunakaran

Scorpion venom is notoriously poisonous but it can potentially replace dangerous and addictive painkillers like morphine, says a new study.

Michael Gurevitz, professor, Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Department of Plant Sciences, is investigating new ways for developing a novel painkiller based on natural compounds found in scorpion venom.

These compounds have gone through millions of years of evolution and some show high efficacy and specificity for certain components of the body with no side-effects, he says.

Peptide toxins found in scorpion venom interact with sodium channels in nervous and muscular systems - and some of these sodium channels communicate pain, says Gurevitz.

“The mammalian body has nine different sodium channels of which only a certain subtype delivers pain to our brain,” adds Gurevitz.

“We are trying to understand how toxins in the venom interact with sodium channels at the molecular level and particularly how some of the toxins differentiate among channel subtypes.”

“If we figure this out, we may be able to slightly modify such toxins, making them more potent and specific for certain pain mediating sodium channels,” Gurevitz continues.

“With this information, engineering of chemical derivatives that mimic the scorpion toxins would provide novel pain killers of high specificity that have no side effects.

In his research, Gurevitz is concentrating on the Israeli yellow scorpion, one of the most potent scorpions in the world. Its venom contains more than 300 peptides of which only a minor fraction has been explored.

The reason for working with this venom, he says, is the large arsenal of active components such as the toxins that have diversified during hundreds of millions of years under selective pressure.

During that process, some toxins have evolved with the capability to directly affect mammalian sodium channel subtypes whereas others recognise and affect sodium channels of invertebrates such as insects, says a university release.

This deviation in specificity is a lesson on how toxins may be manipulated at will by genetic engineering, he says.


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