Although feared by most humans, the scorpion may turn out to be a lifeline for those suffering from extreme pain. A new study suggests poisonous scorpion venom may be able to give humans an alternative to dangerous and addictive painkillers.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University are investigating a novel painkiller based on natural compounds found in the venom of scorpions. Department of Plant Sciences Professor Michael Gurevitz said the compounds have gone through millions of years of evolution and some show high specificity for certain components of the body with no side effects.
Most scorpions will sting a human only if provoked and only a few have venom that’s dangerous to people. All known species possess venom, which is mainly used to paralyze or kill prey. The eight-legged arthropods vary in size and are instantly recognizable due to massive claws at the head and a flexible, segmented tail with a stinger that’s carried in a forward curve over the back. Scorpion venom is either a hemotoxin that, in humans, causes swelling, redness and pain or a neurotoxin that may cause convulsions, paralysis, cardiac irregularities and death. Nocturnal hunters, most species are tropical or subtropical.
The venom is a mixture of compounds (neurotoxins, enzyme inhibitors) each not only causing a different effect, but possibly also targeting a specific animal. Each compound is made and stored in a pair of glandular sacs, and is released in a quantity regulated by the scorpion itself.
Peptide toxins found in scorpion venom interact with sodium channels in nervous and muscular systems and some of these sodium channels communicate pain, said Gurevitz. "The mammalian body has nine different sodium channels of which only a certain subtype delivers pain to our brain. We are trying to understand how toxins in the venom interact with sodium channels at the molecular level and particularly how some of the toxins differentiate among channel subtypes. 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," he added.