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The promise of the cone snail

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VENOM HAUL: Professor K.S. Krishnan with a collection of snail samples. PHOTO: By Special Arrangement
VENOM HAUL: Professor K.S. Krishnan with a collection of snail samples. PHOTO: By Special Arrangement

Divya Gandhi

Its venom has a wide range of possible medical uses

BANGALORE: They might be known better for their exquisitely patterned shells, but cone snails are also some of the planet's most lethally venomous animals.

The slow and seemingly innocuous marine snail is in fact an efficient predator. It hunts fast-moving fish with its venom-coated harpoon, releasing sophisticated toxins that stun, paralyse and finally kill the prey.

Collaborative study

Focussing on their venom, and its possible medical uses, leading science institutes and a university have come together for a major collaborative study of the snail.

These institututions include the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the National Centre for Biological Science, both in Bangalore, and Annamalai University in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu.

The cone snail, considered by scientists to have "more potential for new medicines than any other genus in nature," has generated a considerable amount of research internationally over the last two decades, especially for its potential contributions in treating disorders of the central nervous system.

In India, the new interest in the snail owes almost entirely to the initiatives of scientist K.S. Krishnan, Professor of Biological Sciences, TIFR.

Nearly five years of combined work, coordinated by him and P. Balaram, Director of the IISc, culminated in an application for a patent two years ago for the detection of two peptide (a protein toxin) sequences in the venom.

The process of obtaining the patent is now in its final stages.

Possible innovations

This could hopefully lead to the innovation of several drugs to treat neurological conditions such as epilepsy and post-stroke brain damage, and for pain therapy, says Prof. Krishnan.

Conotoxins (or neurotoxins in cone snail venom) have several virtues that medicine could benefit from, he says.

"Conotoxins act with such precision on their targets in the central nervous system, they could produce fewer side-effects. And unlike most neurological drugs today (such as opium-based morphine) they promise to be non-addictive, and yet up to 1,000 times as potent."

Diversity

What sets cone snails apart from other venom-producing animals, explains Prof. Krishnan, is that each species of it contains a vast diversity of neurotoxins, each of which serves a specific function.

"While cobra venom contains one or two component toxins, cone snails have 100 to 200, which could offer a wealth of peptides that can be isolated and studied," the scientist said.

Prof. Krishnan added that the long Indian coast, along which nearly 200 species of cone-snails are found, offers much scope for research on the enigmatic creatures of the sea.

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