In seemingly every corner of the world, on every continent, you’ll find quite a few plants and animals that could easily cost you your life. This is especially true for the smallest continent, Australia, which is home to the largest proportion of unique species of both plants and animals in the world. One of these unique species is a type sea anemone that scientists believe could hold the answers to “ending” most types of chronic pain, including back pain. The secret lies within the animal’s poison, known as a neurotoxin. So, what is this sea anemone toxin, and what makes scientists believe it can treat back pain? Let’s take a look.
What’s Special About Sea Anemone Toxin?
Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) recently discovered a venomous sea anemone found off the coast of Australia that could potentially “put an end” to chronic back pain.
The sea anemone, named Telmatactis stephensoni, contains toxins located at sites that corresponded to their function of defense, predation, and digestion. This particular species of reef-based sea anemone, which can grow from 8 to 10cm, was found to produce different venoms for biological functions. Of the nearly 84 toxins that the group says make up the complex cocktails of sea anemone toxin, they singled out one, known as U-Tstx-1, that is completely new.
“Unlike snakes which deliver their venom via fangs, T. stephensoni venom is a complex cocktail of toxins that are found in stinging cells throughout the sea anemone’s structure,” said Lauren Ashwood, a Ph.D. researcher from the Queensland University of Technology.
“This means when we study the toxins in the context of what they do, we have an idea of how they might be useful for therapeutics,” she added.
So, how did Ashwood and her colleagues figure out how to use sea anemone toxin to treat chronic pain? To answer this question, let’s examine the study, along with its potential implications.
More About the Study
The study, published in Molecular Ecology, examined the molecular makeup of an unknown poison in the anemone’s gastrodermis—the lining membrane of the alimentary tract of an invertebrate.
“In all, we found 84 potential toxins in T. stephensoni including one that hadn’t been seen before. A sample of this unknown toxin, named U-Tstx-1, has been sent to a specialized lab in Hungary for analysis,” Ashwood said.
“Given that this toxin was found in the gastrodermis of the sea anemone, it could be involved in digestion – it could be a new type of co-lipase, enzymes that break down fat. This toxin could also be similar to a toxin in the venom of black mamba snakes that stimulates intestinal muscle contractions, she added.
Co-researcher QUT Associate Professor, Peter Prentis, from the Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy and the School of Biology and Environmental Science, said scientists were interested in pain-causing venoms because they could potentially be developed to provide pain relief.
“If we can isolate the neurotoxin and find the nerve cell receptor it activates, we could potentially develop a blocker to stop activation and treat conditions such as chronic back pain,” Prentis said.
“This means the toxins in the acontia – long, stinging thread used to ward off would-be predators that cause intense pain to marine animals as well as humans – could be a source of an ‘antidote’ to some types of chronic pain.
Prentis also said new analytical techniques had led to a shift towards toxin-driven discovery, away from the earlier method where crude venom was first tested against a target for desired activity.
But, why do scientists look towards toxins and venoms for medicinal purposes? The answer lies in the
Why Do We Look to Toxins for Medical Treatments?
Animal venoms, like sea anemone toxin, have been used to treat humans throughout history, with snake venom administered medicinally as early as the seventh century BC. Where the focus was first on substances that are used for defense, substances that cause pain, and with which pain medications can be produced, the focus is now increasingly on toxins that have a different function. More recently, toxins have been key in many of our breakthroughs in the medical field, including cancer treatments.
In the 1960s, researchers working for the U.S. National Cancer Institute discovered that the bark of Taxus brevifolia, the Pacific yew, contained a toxic ingredient that could be harnessed on a cellular level to inhibit the progress of some cancers.
Years later, a derived compound known as paclitaxel become widely produced in laboratories and was readily available for cancer treatment. Since then, it is effective in the treatment of breast, lung, and other cancers, as well as AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma. It has also been found useful in preventing a re-narrowing of coronary arteries in stent recipients.
The drug is a prime example of the use of toxins and other poisons in medicine. However, it is just one of only a small number that has been studied extensively. By conservative estimates, some 100,000 animals, from lizards and snakes to sea anemones and jellyfish, produce venom, which in turn can contain hundreds of different toxins. Of those, only about 1,000, including paclitaxel, have been studied at length.
“This new strategy allows for the discovery of peptides that might have remained undiscovered, for example, those which may not be highly abundant in the venom or which possess unanticipated mechanisms of action,” says Prentis.
Prentis went on to add that “toxin-driven discovery can be like finding a needle in a haystack,” but that more research into the field could uncover more useful toxins.
Implications: Treating Chronic Back Pain with Sea Anemone Toxin
One of the major conditions Ashwood and her colleagues claim this new sea anemone toxin could be used for is chronic back pain. U-Tstx-1 is a neurotoxin, which means it acts similarly to other known toxins that stimulate intestinal muscle contractions. Ashwood and her team believe that if they were able to isolate this toxin and find the specific nerve cell receptor it activates, they could potentially develop a blocker that could stop activation and treat pain.
In short, the team believes that they could use the sea anemone toxin to reverse engineer a pain-blocker, which could have major effects on the way we treat chronic pain.
As previously mentioned, Ashwood specifically mentioned chronic back pain as one of the possible uses for sea anemone toxin. If this were to be the case, the development could be huge, as chronic back pain is one of the most common types of chronic pain worldwide. While difficult to gauge, conservative estimates put the global prevalence of chronic back pain somewhere around the 575 million mark, which is just shy of 8% of the entire global population.
Of those 575 million people, the causes of chronic pain differ. The most common causes of chronic back pain include:
- Non-specific muscular pain (muscle strain)
- Bulging or ruptured disks
- Muscle atrophy
- Accidents or other traumatic events
The global burden of chronic back pain is major. Finding new ways to help those in need is key to providing relief against the ongoing battle against chronic back pain. While more research is needed, sea anemone toxin could potentially be the answer millions of people have been waiting for.
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