French scientists have recently identified that the toxic venom of the black mamba, one of Africa's most dangerous and feared snakes, has a huge potential for its use in medicine. The research, carried out by Dr. Eric Lingueglia from the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology near Nice, has identified that the snake's poison contains a unique class of chemicals called mambalgins, which act as painkillers in mice that are as strong as morphine but have none of its associated side effects.
These properties of black mamba venom are of huge interest to the healthcare sector because, despite its heavy use, morphine is highly addictive and has many severe side effects for those taking the drug, which include headaches, a reduction in their thinking capacity, nausea and muscle spasms. A new painkiller then, which is effective enough to remove the same agonising pains as morphine but with none of its side effects would be like a 'magic bullet' in pharmacology, being hugely popular among both doctors and their patients.
Research has identified that these useful mambalgins may work in such a beneficial way because they operate via a previously unseen neural pathway that is not targeted by any other studied venom or by the palliative drugs currently in production. Dr. Nicholas Casewell, a world-leading expert in snake venom from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, is avid over the potential implications of black mamba toxins to medicine and has said that mambalgins are "a really great example of drugs from venom, we're talking about an entirely new class of analgesics".
Dr. Lingueglia believes that this rather surprising property of black mamba venom may be as an intentional effect of the poison, which helps to incapacitate the snake's prey so that it is less likely to escape; or may be due to a chance, but useful, fluke in mice, resulting from the differences in brain chemistry between the rodents and the snake's usual prey.
Whatever the reason for the venom's remarkable analgesic properties in mice however, scientists are excited about the discovery and are hopeful that the toxins will have the same effects in humans as our brain chemistry is very similar to that of the rodents (which is why mice are often used in scientific studies). It is likely that there will be extensive research into mambalgins in the near future, which will hopefully lead to a new drug that acts as a safer alternative to morphine.