Centipede Venom: A Natural, Safer Pain Reliever?

centipede venom

As the pharmaceutical industry continues to grow, many researchers are staying open to treatment materials that might seem counter-intuitive. A new study conducted on mice indicates that compounds found in centipede legs could eventually serve as a natural pain reliever safer than the pharmaceutical drugs we have today. According to biochemist Glenn King, one of the lead researchers behind the study performed at Australia’s University of Queensland, the compound’s potency is similar to that of morphine, and in some cases it actually works much better. Best of all, the mice given the centipede venom showed no signs of side effects or addiction.

Although more work will need to be done in order to determine if the venom can ever be used practically, the results demonstrate that safer, more effective pain relievers could be on the horizon.

Pain Causer = Pain Reliever?

Make no mistake: being stung by a centipede is extremely painful, despite the fact that the creatures only release a few tiny microliters of venomous liquid from their front legs when they sting. Still, the researchers behind the study risked their safety manually extracting venom from Chinese red-headed centipedes in order to study their physiological effects. The venom itself actually contains hundreds of different compounds, only some of which may offer promise on a medicinal level.

The researchers were able to isolate a specific compound from the venom that appeared to block a certain cellular sodium channel. This channel is believed to translate physical harm into a feeling of a pain in the brain. When an individual is born with certain genetic mutations, this cellular sodium channel fails to work properly, and as a result the individual has no sense of smell and no ability to experience pain.

Testing the Pain Killer Compound on Mice

The researchers gave the isolated compound to mice and then caused them pain from sources such as heat and acid. A separate group of mice was subjected to the same sources of pain, but without any pain killing compounds. The mice that were given the centipede venom compound showed far fewer and less pronounced signs of pain than the mice in the control group, and the researchers said the venom compound was about as effective as opioids in mitigating pain.

Given the fact that the venom compound also seemed to produce no side effects, the researchers are hopeful that it will eventually be refined into a drug that’s safer and possibly even more effective than current prescription pain killers.

What’s Wrong with Current Pain Relievers?

Right now, both chronic and temporary types of pain are most commonly treated with opioids. While generally effective for mitigating many types of pain, they lack efficacy in treating other types of pain, and require higher and higher doses over time in order to produce the same levels of pain relief. Making opioids even more addictive is the fact that opioids create a high separate from the pain relief itself, and people may abuse opioids long after the pain for which the drugs were originally prescribed has dissipated.

The compounds found centipede venom, on the other hand, produces no high and does not create tolerance in the cells, meaning that the effective dosage for a given individual’s pain should not increase over time.

However, although mice are genetically similar to humans, additional studies on humans will need to be conducted in order to determine whether the compound found in centipede venom can be refined into a pain relief drug ready for the larger market. In addition, the researchers plan to continue isolating other compounds in the venom to see whether any of them could be even more effective for treating pain.

The Bottom Line

A compound isolated from centipede venom may prove to be a safer and more effective pain reliever than pharmaceutical opioids already on the market. Although the compound effectively relieves pain and shows no signs of creating side effects or tolerance in mice, more work remains before the compound can be tested on humans.

The full text of the study is available online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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