The Cone Snail
Conidae are a family of marine mollusks known commonly as cone snails, which paralyze their prey by injecting them with toxic venom. What sets this family of mollusks apart is the fact that each individual species has been found to produce up to 200 distinct mixtures of venom. The exact number of cone snail species in the world is unknown, but estimates range from 500 to 700 (1,2). Given the number of active compounds each species may contain, the potential for discovery of medicines is vast. The description of the Conidae family as containing the “largest and most clinically important pharmacopoeia of any in Nature” (2) does indeed seems apt. Conus magus, commonly called the magicians’ cone, has recently been used to develop the synthetic chemical ziconotide. In 2004, this became the first “direct from the sea” (3) product approved by the FDA as a licensed pharmaceutical. Now marketed as Prialt, this painkiller is approximately 1000 times as potent as morphine without the tolerance development or addictive properties (1,2,3,4). There are many other potential medical uses currently under examination in addition to the treatment of chronic pain, including in biomedical research into cell functioning, as an anti-epileptic, or as a medication to suppress cell death in neurodegenerative diseases (1,2).
1. Alves, R.R.N. and Rosa, I.M.L. 2007. Biodiversity, traditional medicine and public health: Where do they meet? Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 3, 14-22.
2. Chivian, E. and Bernstein, A. 2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Newman, D.J. and Cragg, G.M. 2007. Natural products as sources of new drugs over the last 25 years. Journal of Natural Products, 70, 461-477.
4. Stolton, S. and Dudley, N. 2010. Vital sites: the contribution of protected areas to human health. WWF and Equilibrium Research’s Arguments for Protection Series. Available online: www.cbd.int/database/attachment/?id=1396