The venom of the black mamba is one of the most deadly and fast acting in the world, rarely more than thirty agonising minutes after being bitten are you alive. You might then be surprised to learn then that this venom holds the key to a problem that has troubled medicine since its origins, how to manage pain effectively.
Once isolated, three of the component proteins of the black mamba’s venom have proven to be a highly effective painkiller in tests on mice. The proteins, dubbed “Mambalgins” by the researchers, had an analgesic effect as strong as morphine.
But what makes these proteins special is that, unlike morphine, it does not cause any noticeable side-effects such as the headaches, muscle twitches, or nausea commonly associated with opiate painkillers. Nor do they lead to increased tolerance, which requires morphine to be administrated in increasing dosages, or addiction which leads to damaging behaviour.
The human body when injured will produce a cocktail of chemicals that travels around the body. When these pain chemicals reach the brain, they tell the brain to create the sensation of pain. This then makes us aware of the injury and we react accordingly.
Cornerstones of this process are the acid-sensing ion channels, or ASICS, which let the brain detect the chemicals of the pain response by sensing an increase in the acidity of cells. Snake venoms have been known to either decrease or increase the acidity of cells, this will subsequently decrease or increase the pain felt by the victim. The isolated Mambalgins inhibit these channels and reduce the amount of pain that a bite victim feels.
The research, carried out at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology in France and published in Nature, opens up new possibilities into commercial painkillers, but also for obtaining a deeper understanding of the way in which our brains respond to and detect pain.
Initial tests with Mambalgins on human cells have been positive. However, it must be noted that this is very early research and much work remains to be done if we are to see it applied to humans. That said it is promising given the similarities in the ways in which mice and humans process pain.