Scorpion Venom Strikes at Pain Without Morphine's Addictive Sting

Tel Aviv, Israel — Scorpion venom could lead the way to morphine alternatives, according to research at Tel Aviv University.

The research, headed up by Prof. Michael Gurevitz of the Department of Plant Sciences, is looking at how to use natural compounds in scorpion venom to develop painkillers that aren't addictive or have other side effects.

Toxins in the venom interact with the nervous and muscular systems' sodium channels, some of which communicate pain. “The mammalian body has nine different sodium channels of which only a certain subtype delivers pain to our brain," Gurevitz said in a statement. “If we figure this out, we may be able to slightly modify such toxins, making them more potent and specific for certain pain mediating sodium channels."

With a better understanding of the toxins, researchers could engineer chemicals that mimic the painkilling aspects of venom without causing side effects.

"Instead of running the risk of addiction, this venom-derived drug, mimicking the small peptide toxin, would do what it needs to do and then pass from the body with no traces or side-effects,” Gurevitz said.

Gurevitz's research is focusing on the Israeli yellow scorpion, one of the most potent scorpions in the world, whose venom contains more than 300 peptides. Very few of those peptides have been investigated, but researchers do know that over the scorpion's history, its toxins have diversified and evolved to the point that some of its toxins can affect mammals while others affect insects. According to Gurevitz, those changes show how genetic engineering would be able to manipulate toxins in a similar way.

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