Taking a Bite Out of Parkinson’s: Snail venom helps fight brain disease

Jack always said the ocean was his first love. Every chance he had as a young boy, he would hop a ride on his father’s little skipper to go diving or snorkeling, or maybe just to spend an hour bobbing on the waves. Now Jack teaches his grandchildren to love the ocean as he does, pulling out his well-worn field guides and pronouncing each creature’s scientific name as if introducing an old friend.

One day, Jack noticed a slight tremor in his left hand. It was so faint he would have thought he imagined it, except for the subtle sloshing of the ice tea in his glass. A few weeks later he began feeling extremely fatigued, but brushed it off, telling himself he was just getting older. He started to get worried when he realized he was slurring his speech, stumbling over words as if his tongue couldn’t keep up with his brain. To dispel his own anxiety and at the urging of his children, Jack scheduled an appointment with his doctor for later that month; his body had other ideas. That weekend while snorkeling, Jack’s legs cramped up, and he began to sink. He woke up coughing on the deck, surrounded by the worried faces of his loved ones.

Shell of the omaria cone snail

Shell of the omaria cone snail, whose venomous bite could hold the key to treating many neurological diseases.
(By permission of Phil Camill)

Weeks of tests and scans followed, never yielding a definitive answer. Finally Jack’s 65th birthday came and brought a devastating diagnosis – Parkinson’s disease. The doctor said “progressive neurological disorder” so matter-of-factly, as if it didn’t mean Jack couldn’t scuba dive or snorkel anymore, or that he couldn’t be trusted to go out alone on his boat, or that daily activities like dressing, eating, bathing and writing “might someday become difficult.” It was all because his neurons were breaking down and dying, his doctor said, leaving Jack with a serious lack of dopamine, a chemical messenger vital in maintaining normal brain function. The doctor had no explanation – maybe it was genetics, maybe exposure to certain environmental toxins – either way, there was nothing that could be done to stop the disease. Medicines currently available would only slow it down (“Parkinson’s disease,” 2014).

Jack left the doctor’s office with a sense of helplessness. He felt his first glimmer of hope when his his oldest grandson stopped by with some amazing information.

“Grandpa, you’ll never guess who popped up during my search for Parkinson’s research,” the youngster said with a rare look of delight in his eyes.

“Who?” Jack queried, not quite following.

Conus omaria, that sea snail we sometimes see when we’re diving, the one you always tell me not to touch because its bite is super poisonous. It turns out one of those dangerous neurotoxins in the cone snail’s venom called alpha conotoxin Om1A is helping researchers at the University of Utah develop new drugs to treat Parkinson’s!” the boy announced triumphantly (“A new tool against brain disease,” 2006).

Throughout the brain and the rest of the nervous system are receptors called nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which are an important part of healthy brain function. Alpha conotoxin Om1A fits very tightly into the nicotinic receptors that trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters involved in many neurological diseases. Being able to activate or block specific these receptors would open up a whole new world of medical treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s, mood disorders, nicotine and alcohol addiction, and possibly even schizophrenia (Yuhas, 2013).

Researchers at the University of Utah tested many toxins in the omaria cone snail’s venom and found that Om1A is unique because it fits tightly into some receptors but not others (Siegel, 2006). This desirable attribute is beneficial because if a drug can be developed to mimic the shape of the toxin, it will be less likely to bind with the wrong receptor and cause unwanted side effects. The researchers produced a detailed picture of both the receptor ‘locks’ and the toxin ‘key.’ By locating the points of contact between the toxin and the receptor, scientists will be able to design a drug to fit exactly into the receptor, triggering the release of needed neurotransmitters (Bingham, 2010).

"lock" and "key" model

“Lock” and “key” model; the purple represents the potential drug and the grey represents the receptor.
By Bensaccount at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Scientists predict that it will take 10 to 20 years to develop medications based on what they have learned from Om1A (Siegel, 2006). It may seem like they are progressing at a snail’s pace; however this slow but steady work will someday hopefully transform the omaria cone snail’s debilitating bite into medicine that gives mobility back to Jack and other people with Parkinson’s disease.

In Brief:

  • Nicotine receptors throughout the nervous system control the release of neurotransmitters, which allow cells to communicate.
  • A lack of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine or serotonin, can cause neurological diseases, such as Parksinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and depression.
  • A specific toxin from the venom of the omaria cone snail, Conus omaria, fits tightly into some of these receptors, but not all, giving it potential as a model for new drugs to trigger the release of needed neurotransmitters and treat these various neurological diseases.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw26. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff


Author: cYw26

Hey everyone and welcome to curiousYOUNGwriters! I am a first time author for the site, but have had lots of exposure to the editing side of cYw as a member of the student staff. I have always had a love of science, particularly medicine, and an equally strong passion for writing and poetry. CYw has been a great way to combine my two interests while getting the chance to learn about cool new research and work with talented writers. I am part of the Science Academy at my school and hope to pursue a career in either medicine or biomedical research; infectious disease and pathology are two areas that particularly interest me. When I am not working on stuff for cYw you can find me running cross country, playing piano, sketching, reading, or listening to the latest indie music. Thanks so much for checking out my article and please feel free to leave comment; it’s always great to hear what our readers have to say.

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    Your storyline really held my attention. I thought it was really cool that you were able to continue with the narrative throughout the introduction of the animal model.

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      Thanks, Ilana! That is one of my favorite parts of cYW: connecting with the reader while also informing them on a disease state and the cool new research going on in this field.

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      This article that you wrote was very fascinating. I enjoyed reading it and found lots of valuable information that could help me with my research. One major thing in the article that I found fascinating, was how they took a very poisonous toxin and turned it into a cure. I believe that if you can use science to take out certains proteins and part of the venom to make one toxin that can become a cure shows a great advancement in our world. Some questions that I came across, were how or what type of technology did the scientist use to see or figure out that the toxin fit into the receptors perfectly? I was wondering if they used an imaging machine of some sort. Overall, the article was great and I was able to attain lots of information from it. Thanks.

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    Wow – you give me hope in the new generation of young folk who are curious, intelligent and able to communicate their discoveries to others. Keep us up to date on this discovery, and I wish you well in your future endeavours.

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    I found your article very interesting and promising. The idea that something like the venom of a cone snail actually being useful in curing Parkinson’s is very interesting to me. One of the things I was wondering was how they figured this out. Did they have suspicions that the cone snail’s venom would fit into the receptors or was it just discovered by chance? I also wonder what technology was used to figure this out. I assume it was some sort of imaging technology that was used but what specific type I would like to know. Thanks for writing this.

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