Will animal toxins hold the key for pain relief?

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Toxins may hold the key for pain relief.

Pharmaceutical companies are always researching to find the new and improved pain medication. Often times it is within nature where they look for answers. Perhaps the next great break through will come from a little frog from Equador, a sea snail from the Pacific or a deadly spider from Australia.


It is not so farfetched of an idea to look at nature for pain relief. After all in 400 BC Hippocrates used a compound from the Willow bark for pain that contains salicylic acid which is the active ingredient in aspirin. Since that time plants and animals in nature has provided a wealth of health benefits.

How is pain transmitted?
Pain is a very intricate process. If it were not so traumatic, you could see the beauty in how it is a dance that involves the coordination of so many elements. It is the neurotransmitters, that transmit nerve impulses from one cell to another that play the most important part. They act in any number of combinations to produce different painful sensations including burning, aching, stabbing and others. Research on how to block neurotransmitter receptors is the key to pain relief.

Opioid type drugs (Morphine, Dilaudid, Oxycodone, etc) are effective because they block the pathways in the receptors. The downside of course is the potential for addiction and side effects such as nausea and constipation. This is where research is focusing on now.

Enter the frog. Poison dart frogs in Central and South America are very toxic. In fact they are toxic enough to kill.

However one particular type of poison dart frog may prove to be beneficial. It is called the phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor) and is present in Ecuador.

This tiny frog produces a toxin called epibatidine. In the wild this toxin targets the nervous system, causing paralysis and even death.

It was Dr John Daly in the 1970’s however that discovered that the secretions worked as a powerful pain reliever at very small doses. It chemically resembles nicotine and is 200 times more powerful than the opioid Morphine.

What makes it extraordinary however is that it lacks the ability to cause addiction.


Prialt is man made and is derived from the venom of the tropical water Conus magus snail. It has now been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for severe, chronic pain.

It works by blocking the calcium channels in nerve cells that transmit pain signals. This makes it a novel pain reliever unlike many on the market. Just like Epibatidine, it is much more powerful than Morphine.

There is a downside however. Unlike other painkillers that are being developed using venom, Prialt cannot be ingested or injected. It has to be delivered directly into the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord via an epidural route. Morphine pumps are already used for severe chronic pain and this may be a viable alternative.

The individuals that will be helped by this type of pain relief may be limited and will not be available to everyone. Just like those with implanted morphine pumps it will be reserved for pain relief when other methods have not been successful.

"This drug is for patients in chronic and severe pain who are not getting substantial and meaningful relief with oral opiates, or are having unacceptable side effects with them," said Robert Meyer, director of the FDA's Office of Drug Evaluation II. "At this point we don't see this class of drug expanding to general use."

The future
Researchers out of Yale are looking to the toxin of a spider for use in pain control.
Professor Michael Nitabach and Dr. Jun Hong Gui have been identifying and testing the activity of over 90 active toxins found within the venom of the Australian funnel-web spider. This may become the next neurotransmitter pain reliever.

Because the venom itself is deadly it cannot be imported. Instead they are receiving the genetic information itself from researchers from Australia, and working on a DNA level for pain relief.

Take home message
Nature was the "pharmacy" from which people obtained their medicines for centuries. Even today more than 40 percent of all drugs contain at least one ingredient derived from nature. Many new drugs are being derived from plants and animals of the rainforests and oceans. Now more than ever it is important to preserve Mother Nature. It may be where the cure for cancer or next great pain reliever lies.


Amphibian Rescue

Summner, J., (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants Portland: Timber Press, Inc



Does anyone know of any more studies done with this frog poison and its use in chronic pain? It seems to have fantastic possiblities!