Osteen says they occasionally do genetic work on the tarantula's venom sac to figure out what kinds of proteins are expressed. "It's pretty scary to have them around," he said.
Osteen said the new toxins can now be used as a highly selective tool for manipulating this type of sodium channel, which also has been implicated in neurological disorders unrelated to pain, from epilepsy to autism to Alzheimer's disease.
"The challenge in treating these disorders is you want to tune the function of the channels to get them back to baseline," he said. "You want drugs to boost the activity, or turn the gain down. We found a way to isolate one of nine pathways."
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Still, it might be a long way to go from isolating a compound to developing a drug that can help people. Researchers have been looking at toxins from the deadly marine cone snail that uses its poison to paralyze fish in its South Pacific habitat for decades. Despite several clinical trials, only one drug has been brought to market after federal approvals - Ziconotide in 2004 – which is used to combat chronic pain.
"There's a long and challenging pathway for all these discoveries to convert them into a safe drug for patients," said Greg Bulaj, assistant research professor at University of Utah, where he studies the biochemistry of cone snail toxins.
Bulaj says the UCSF work is promising.
"Preclinical and clinical validation of this new analgesic mechanism and novel tarantula toxins could be very compelling."
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