The next time you are in pain, you might want to think of a “fanged fish” that lives in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.
The venom from that fish might eventually become a new painkiller that is less addictive than some of the prescription opioids available.
The announcement of the fish’s heroin-like venom is the latest in a burgeoning new field of research in which natural toxins from fish and animals are being sought as alternatives on our list of pain medications.
“There’s definitely a big need for medications like this,” said Dr. Kiran Rajneesh, a neurologist with a specialty in pain management at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved in the current study.
The research findings were published today in the journal Current Biology.
The fish in question
The research was led by Bryan Fry, PhD, an associate professor of evolutionary biology, genetics, and molecular biology at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Fry told Healthline he became interested in the topic because he’s had 24 broken bones during his lifetime.
He said he’s taken numerous pain medications over the years, becoming addicted to both Vicodin and hydromorphone at different times.
His current research focused on the fang blenny, an aggressive fish found in the Pacific Ocean, including Australia’s coral reefs.
The fang blenny injects other fish with an opioid peptide that acts like heroin or morphine. It causes both predators and prey to slow down and become dizzy.
“The venom is absolutely unique,” Fry said. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”
Injecting the pure venom into a person would cause similar adverse effects. However, Fry said, researchers can study the venom’s peptides further to see if it could be developed into a new type of pain medication.
“This may reveal versions that are longer lasting, more potent, or with less side effects [than other opioids],” he said.
New field of research
Rajneesh said the idea of using fish venom as a painkiller is quite plausible.
He told Healthline there is growing interest in his field in utilizing natural toxins as opposed to those that are chemically produced.
He said toxins from plants and animals tend to be less addictive, last longer, and have fewer side effects than current pain medications.
He said one of the drawbacks of the natural toxins is that the human body can react negatively to foreign proteins and other substances that enter their realm.
The field has had some successes.
One of the best known is botulinum toxin, a neurotoxin produced by a bacterium that by itself is the most poisonous known biological substance. However, a purified version of it is used to make Botox.
Rajneesh said he uses a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) to treat stroke victims. That medication was derived from a snake venom.
There’s also an experimental drug made from the venom of a sea snail in Australia that has shown promise as a pain medication.
“We’ve derived some great uses from these substances,” he said. “Nature is really the best designer.”
Fry said these and other discoveries show the importance of preserving the environment.
“This is why we must urgently protect all of nature. It is impossible to predict where the next wonder drug will come from,” he said.