The Deadliest Healer: King Cobra Venom Used in a High-Strength Painkiller

A king cobra. [Photo: “King Cobra” by Hari Prasad Nadig, License: CC BY-SA 2.0]
A fisherman sits on top of the calm, murky waters of the Ganges River, pulling in his trawling net. As he lugs it up onto his rickety dinghy, he begins to survey his catches. A few flopping fish, some loose garbage, a mass of plants… and a strange brown rope. He reaches down to pick up the rope, thinking it might be useful to him. As his outstretched hand reaches the rope, it begins to move. He immediately realizes what it is, and tries to draw back his arm. But he can’t move fast enough. The “rope” rose up, its head turning to face him, its hood flashing behind it. Before he can get away, it strikes. A red hot pain shoots through his arm as its long dagger fangs sink into his flesh. He lets loose a strangled cry as the creature pulls back. He drops the net, and falls back onto the bare floor of the small boat. He knows what has happened to him and that he has mere minutes to live. Once the king cobra strikes, you have no time.

A patient lies on a bare hospital bed, writhing in pain. It’s as if his body had been set on fire. He feels as though his nerves were being ripped apart, one by one. The morphine had done nothing. A nurse entered the room, holding a small cup. She nears the shaking patient, holding the cup out to him. In it are several pearly pills, shining with hope. After taking them painfully, a certain look of bliss comes across his face. His movements stop. The patient smiles as he realizes what happened. He has been cured—in a way. This new painkiller worked on him, finally. Where morphine had done little, the tamed venom of the king cobra had worked.

Pain is an everyday ordeal. You stub your toe- pain. You break a leg- pain. You get into a car accident- pain. As you can see, there are varying levels of pain. Most can be taken care of with a Band-Aid or some ice, maybe a kiss from your mom. While dealing with these cases, painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen can be used.

Some pain may not be so minor. As you move up the pain scale, morphine may be needed. Although it is one of the most powerful painkillers in use (Kaye, 1990), not even morphine can alleviate every pain. Beyond morphine’s range lies nerve damage and related injuries. For these cases, there were few options other than letting the pain run its course. But now, a new option has arisen.

The human nervous system. [Photo License: Public Domain]
Snake venom is a curious thing, and king cobra venom is even more mysterious. Cobra venoms are among the fastest-acting venoms found in snakes. They quickly cripple the nervous system, sending out toxins that bind to muscular receptors in the victim. These toxins then block the chemical neurotransmitters that communicate with the muscle and control its contractions. Without this ability, the victim becomes paralyzed, and experiences respiratory failure and could die (Carroll, 2010). This explains the first scenario, but what about the second one?

At the National University of Singapore, Professor R. Manjunatha Kini of the Department of Biological Sciences led a study on the venom of the Ophiophagus hannah, the king cobra. They were able to identify a novel protein unique to the king cobra, called ohanin (Kini, 2005). Ohanin is a small protein made up of 107 amino acids. Due to this relatively unusual makeup compared to other snake venoms, the protein does not fit into any existing venom families, and is considered the first in a new, growing family of snake venoms. This unique protein has been found to be nontoxic up to 10 mg/kg, allowing it to be injected into mice for the experiment (Kini, 2005). Once injected into mice, certain neurological effects were observed.

Two very prominent effects of the ohanin protein were hypolocomotion and hyperalgesia. (Kini, 2005). Hyoplocomotion is the inhibition of physical or behavioral activity, and is a common trait of sedatives, whereas hyperalgesia is the heightening of sensitivity to pain (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, n.d.). These two effects are clear indicators that ohanin has a very direct and aggressive impact on the central nervous system. While these may not seem to be desirable aspects of painkillers, the reaction seen in the nervous system is the value of ohanin. Because it had such a prominent effect, the researchers were able to conclude that the protein could be further manipulated to incorporate and enhance the desired features for what could be the first effective painkiller to utilize the king cobra venom.

Snakes being milked to extract venom. [Photo: “Snake Milking” by Barry Rogge, License: CC BY 2.0]
More recently, Professor Kini’s team has developed a painkiller that does so. By carefully isolating specific parts of the protein ohanin, they were able to detoxify the venom and manipulate it to their advantage. With this helpful protein extracted, a painkiller was developed that reaped the benefits of the protein’s controlling traits. This painkiller, which is 20 times more potent that morphine, has zero side effects at dosages up to 2,000 times the effective dose (Ee, 2013). This new drug is being tested in clinical trials, and will be formally released by 2016 or 2017.

As incredible as this is, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Snake venom is still being tested, and is believed to hold thousands of more medical uses. As Professor Kini states, “We know perhaps only 1 per cent of the benefits of snake venom.” Who knows what’s next? Maybe it could be a cancer cure, or a diabetes treatment. What’s for sure now, though, is that there will always be a certain poetic ring to the idea of something as deadly as cobra venom healing you.

In Brief:

Painkillers Infographic
Painkillers Infographic

Works Cited


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