ven as a boy plucking cone-snail shells from tide pools near his home beside Manila Bay, in the Philippines, Baldomero Olivera knew that grabbing a living one could mean death. The magician’s cone, whose sting can cause extreme swelling, is the shape of a pointed hat; a tulip cone can trigger blurred vision and uncontrollable drooling, but it has ornate petal-like swirls. Mishandling a live geographer cone could stop his heart within minutes. But it looks like a Persian rug! Snagged. “We knew even as kids,” Olivera says, “that this snail was capable of killing humans and that it has a 70 percent fatality rate.” It’s a foggy morning in Salt Lake City, and Olivera is near a bank of fish tanks in his lab at the University of Utah. Inside one aquarium, a white-and-brown snail is burrowed in the sand beside a small goldfish. The invertebrate extends its thick snorkel-like siphon and lightly sniffs the fish’s underbelly. Olivera, now 77, grew up to be a chemist but never shook his love for these slow-moving assassins. He’s now the lead scientist at a 25-person lab that studies cone-snail venom. His job is to figure out how it works, and, in turn, transform it into drugs that could soothe and save human lives. So far, his lab has isolated several promising molecules, including a few painkillers, and a fast-acting insulin that could let diabetics quickly control their blood sugar. Among the former is Prialt (for primary alternative to morphine). Aside from being the first federally OK’d drug to come from a lethal snail, it works on different receptors than opioids to alleviate chronic pain in cancer patients. In other words, it’s non-addictive. But it will never be a primary replacement for morphine because it needs to be pumped into a patient’s spine. These days, Olivera and his colleagues are trying to isolate a snail toxin that could be turned into a new class of painkillers that target different pathways than what’s now on the market. If successful, it could offer a substitute to addictive narcotics like oxycodone (which kills upward of 14,000 Americans a year) as the go-to medication for millions of chronic-pain sufferers.
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