Molecule from Venom of Chinese Centipede Could Lead to Painkiller as Effective as Morphine

Scientists reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have discovered a peptide in the venom of the Chinese red-headed centipede, Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans, with the potential to be developed into a pain drug as effective as morphine.

Chinese red-headed centipedes, Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans. Image credit: Department of Biology, the University of New Mexico.

Chinese red-headed centipedes, Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans. Image credit: Department of Biology, the University of New Mexico.

The team studied the venom of the Chinese red-headed centipede in an effort to find better solutions for people who suffer from chronic pain.

They found that a peptide, named Ssm6a, from centipede venom blocks the human Nav1.7 channel in pain-sensing nerves.

“People without a functioning Nav1.7 channel cannot feel pain, so it’s likely molecules that can block this channel will be powerful painkillers,” said study senior author Prof Glenn King University of Queensland from the University of Queensland.

“We recently demonstrated that the venom of the Chinese red-headed centipede was rich in molecules that can alter the function of nerve channels, so we decided to explore this venom to see if there was a molecule that could block Nav1.7.”

“The molecule we found selectively targets this pain channel, which is crucial as closely related channels play critical roles in controlling the heart and muscles.”

It was likely that centipedes had evolved the molecule to block similar nerve channels in insects in order to prey on them.

“Our study suggests that centipede venoms, which to date have been largely unstudied, might provide a new source of potential drugs for treating chronic pain and other conditions,” Prof King said.

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Bibliographic information: Shilong Yang et al. Discovery of a selective NaV1.7 inhibitor from centipede venom with analgesic efficacy exceeding morphine in rodent pain models. PNAS, published online September 30, 2013; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1306285110