Scorpion venom and intense pain generally go hand in hand, but a group of researchers at Tel Aviv University are rethinking that relationship, using a better understanding of the peptide toxins found in scorpions’ pain-inducing payloads to create a breed of non-addictive, side effect-free painkillers.
Pain is communicated to the brain via a certain type of sodium channel embedded in our nervous and muscular systems. Understanding the way these sodium channels convey the sensation of pain from certain parts of the body to the brain is key to manipulating these signals to reduce or eliminate feelings of pain. Figure out how to manipulate those mechanisms, and we could be on the way to a much less painful future.
Luckily for us, scorpions — friendly little critters that they are — have spent the past few million years evolving sophisticated toxins that can really turn up the level of excruciation. By modifying those same molecules, researchers believe they can customize compounds that are highly effective at numbing specific kinds of pain in specific parts of the body. What’s more, because these compounds are natural and tailor-tweaked, they can be engineered to perform without side effects like addiction or the state of lovely but intoxicating loopiness induced by other painkilling compounds like morphine.
Therein lies the benefit, of course; anyone who’s had wisdom teeth pulled or dealt with a serious ligament tear knows that a bottle of conventional pain meds can get the job done, but the side effects can be mentally impairing and even dangerous should one become chemically dependent. With bio-mimicking pain compounds, doctors could treat chronic discomfort without fearing that patients might end up in the streets trying to score that next hit of scorpion.