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Snails straight from the sea

Neuroscientist KS Krishnan tells Reshma Patil that a painkiller superior to morphine can be derived from the snail.

india Updated: Feb 09, 2007 02:40 IST

Why does a neuroscientist have poisonous snails in his lab?

Some snails were collected during excursions to coastal areas across India, but at times I have dug through dirt and seaside trash at night. When the phase of the moon is right, I go to the sea by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (where I work) and pull out some of three species of snails and keep them in a tank. A large fraction of cone snail species is endemic to India. We have discovered that every species produces completely different toxins. My research probes how points of contact or synapse between snail nerve cells function.

How is it possible to make a painkiller superior to morphine from snails?

Since snails move slowly and their venom is used mainly to catch faster moving prey like fish, the venom acts speedily. Components in the venom are extremely specific, fast-acting and work at low doses. But for humans, these toxins can be regulated to safe levels for therapeutic use. Pain receptors convey pain to the brain through neurons but some components of snail venom inhibit the receptor or prevent pain from reaching the brain. When developed, these components could lead to drugs with no side effects and will not be addictive, or needed in large quantities. That’s precisely where morphine fails.

Is your research ready for clinical trials?

Far from it. We have begun research because of the wealth of cone species in India and the prospect of many discoveries. We need to conduct animal tests and find concentrations at which useful pharmacological effects are produced. This will help us decide the safe concentrations to use in clinical trials. I suspect it will be a few years before we do that and find interested pharmaceutical companies.

Are global competitors pursuing similar research?

A product from a Filipino scientist is already in the market. There are companies and university researchers in Australia, China and Singapore doing similar work.

How diverse is your collection of snail specimen?

Of the 80 snail species found in India, I may have specimen shells of about 60. For our research, we use about 15 species found in large numbers, and generally dumped by fishermen.