Poisonous Snake Venom Could Hold Key to Pain Relief

Blue coral snakes freeze their prey with venom unlike that of any other snake, and their weapon of choice has the potential to help people.

A snake that scientist's call a "killer's killer" turns out to have another superlative to add to its biography: The way its deadly venom affects prey is unlike that of any other snake.

The long-glanded blue coral snake, a team of researchers from University of Queensland (UQ) has found, deploys venom that sends an enormous shock to the entire nervous system of its prey, causing its victims to freeze up in a state of total paralysis.

The UQ team has published a new study on the venom in the journal Toxins. Its title, "The Snake with the Scorpion's Sting" offers a clear idea of the kind of bite the reptile possesses.

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Bryan Fry, an associate professor in biology at the university, called the snakes "killer's killers," for their penchant for going after the most dangerous of snakes.

"They specialize in preying on other venomous snakes, including young king cobras," said Fry in a statement, "so they play a 'hunt the most dangerous' game."

The blue coral snake certainly looks the part of the alpha-snake gunslinger, with its bright-red head and tail and cool-blue striping. Stranger still, according to Fry, while the badass snake does not kill like any other snake in the world, its deadly ways are identical to, well, a cone snail. Cone snails comprise a wide array of venomous predators with conical shells.

"A cone snail instantly paralyzes a fish into a rigid death mask," Fry explained, "fully tensing the muscles in a tetanus-like spasm. This keeps the fish from escaping the immobile snail."

"Now," said Fry, "it has been shown there is a snake that kills the same way."

The snake's venom doesn't kill right away. "Instead," said Fry, "it turns on all the nerves of their fast-moving prey – who are also potential predators – at one time, almost instantly resulting in a frozen state."

More than just a fascinating tool found in a predatory species, the venom may one day help humans. According to the researchers, the chemistry behind how the venom causes prey's nerves to keep firing rather than shutting down has implications for improving pain management treatment in humans.

"This is another in the long line of useful discoveries from venom that could benefit human health," Fry said.