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Pain Don't Hurt

May 30, 2011

Eva Gusnowski

…or at least not to Patrick Swayze.

But for the rest of us there are always painkillers. For extreme pain where aspirin just won’t cut it, morphine is a big painkiller that comes to mind, and has been used extensively since its invention in the early 19th century as a painkiller. (Fun fact: Morphine was initially called “morphium” after the Greek god Morpheus, the god of dreams) However, morphine is a highly addictive opium-derived narcotic, with serious addictions beginning in a matter of weeks. The exploration of alternative, non-addictive painkillers is therefore quite a hot topic in research. And Professor Michael Gurevitz of Tel Aviv University's Department of Plant Sciences is doing just that, and from an unlikely source.

 

Eva Gusnowski, yellow scorpion, morphine alternative


The Israeli yellow scorpion is extremely venomous, and is actually one of the most toxic scorpions in the world. Its venom contains over 300 peptides (small proteins) that contribute to its toxicity, some of which interact with and block sodium-ion channels in the brain. A subset of these ion channels are used to communicate pain, therefore blocking them is a way to block the feeling of pain. Many painkillers work this way but, like morphine, are highly addictive. The use of scorpion venom peptides to block pain-related sodium channels might therefore provide a way to avoid the addictive effects of opiates and other addictive narcotic substances because - you guessed it - scorpion venom isn’t addictive!

 


Now, they won’t exactly be using the venom itself to treat pain. If venom is a cocktail of 300+ toxins, we don’t want to be simply giving the entire mix to someone. Instead, genetic engineering is going to come into play. The peptides in scorpion venom are very specific to either mammals or invertebrates, and this specificity can be used to design and synthesize venom peptide mimics that will bind specific ion channels – namely those involved in the pain response.


Not only that, but other peptides in scorpion venom are being used to treat gliomas (brain/spinal tumors) as well as epilepsy. Talk about multifunctional!


So until we can all work at the Double Deuce like Mr. Swayze, we’ll just have to resign ourselves to using painkillers. Because pain really does hurt…but at least scorpions are making it better.

 
Eva Gusnowski, yellow scorpion, morphine alternative
 
 

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