Snail Venom Mimics Dopamine, Researchers Find

Venom from an ocean snail may have benefits for people with addictions, depression and Parkinson's disease, University of Utah researchers reported Monday. They said they produced a synthetic version of the toxin that can block or stimulate receptors that release chemicals in the brain.

"A snail is a treasure chest. They have tens of thousands of compounds," said J. Michael McIntosh, professor of biology and psychiatry.

McIntosh, working with cone-snail researcher Baldomero "Toto" Olivera, found the synthetic version can latch onto a brain receptor that is commonly activated by nicotine during smoking.

Smoking releases dopamine, a chemical used as a "reward signal" by the brain, he explained.

The toxin studied by McIntosh fits certain brain receptors. As a result, it could be used to stimulate dopamine, which is lacking in people with neurological diseases, and serotonin and norepinephrine in people with mood disorders, he said.

It also could block receptors and help people who want to stop smoking or drinking, McIntosh said.

"The aim is to stimulate some receptors but not others," he said. The research shows benefits without using the "toxic properties of nicotine."

The work will be published Friday in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

McIntosh has a record of working with snail venom. His work as an undergraduate at the university led to Prialt, a drug that is injected into the spinal cord to treat severe pain. It is made by Elan Pharmaceuticals of Ireland.

"It turns out these snails are very sophisticated in the type of arsenal they've put together to hunt other organisms," McIntosh said.

Olivera, a biology professor, was out of the country and unavailable for comment. McIntosh said his colleague's interest in snails dates back to childhood in the Philippines, where he collected shells.

The snails in the research were collected by divers in the Philippines. The venom was extracted and shipped to Utah to make a synthetic version for testing on rat cells grown in frog eggs.

McIntosh predicted it could take 10 to 20 years to develop medicine based on the research, which was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.