• Non-addictive painkillers from poisonous Philippine seashells


    Ma. Isabel Ongpin

    I HAVE been hearing how the poisons in our Philippine cones can be regarded as assets in pharmacology because, even as we speak, they are being turned into painkillers that are non-addictive but very effective. One characteristic is that they can be used long-term without having to increase their dosage to be effective, unlike other painkillers like morphine.

    Considering the opioid crisis that we are seeing in the US where opioids, or chemical painkillers, have become so addictive as to require higher dosages to be effective for long-term use, that they have become literally life-threatening. Some US states like Ohio and Florida are experiencing high death rates due to opioid use, particularly by young people who have made it a drug of choice. So much so that recently the US President has had to put out an executive order to counter the opioid crisis.

    Meanwhile, in the Philippines and in the US, two Filipinos are leading research teams working on how poisons from our extensive range of poisonous seashells can be turned into painkillers. They are Dr. Lourdes Cruz, National Scientist, and her team in the Philippines, and Dr. Baldomero Olivera, Jr., at the University of Utah in the US. Dr. Cruz is a renowned Filipino scientist (a UP graduate in biochemistry, and an MS and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Iowa), who taught at UP Los Baños and Manila and worked with the International Rice Research Institute in her early career. She has written the most research papers in the University of the Philippines.

    The research has been going on for a number of decades now and there is a painkiller, Prialt, already in the market in Europe and the US made from the results of the research. More and varied ones are in the offing.

    More research is ongoing as the research teams find a whole range of seashells in Philippine waters (cones, turrids, augers) whose poisons can be used. Cones alone have 700 species; many more may not yet be known to science. Turrids and augers with their own poisons have now been added to the study group. Many of these seashells have not yet scientifically classified. Research work analyzes and deconstructs their biochemical properties thoroughly to be able to transform them into painkillers. The teams are on the brink of coming up with drugs that will not only be simple painkillers but can be especially useful for diabetes, epilepsy and intractable cancer pain.

    All of the above I learned from a lecture sponsored by the Museum Foundation of the Philippines at the National Museum (“Sabado sa Museo”) last Saturday, February 24, given by Dr. Baldomero Olivera, Jr. himself, titled “Cone Snails: From Natural History Treasures to a Pharmacological Cornucopia for Novel Non-Opioid Drugs for Pain.”

    Dr. Olivera is an inveterate collector of oriental ceramics and seashells. The latter introduced him to Philippine poisonous cones which awakened in him a sense of scientific curiosity that led to serious investigative work. He is originally a resident of San Juan, Metro Manila; he went to grade school at St. John’s Academy, a school run by his aunts in that city. From there he went to the University of the Philippines where he graduated summa cum laude and on to the California Institute of Technology where he earned his doctorate and then for post-doctoral studies at Stanford. Eventually he taught at the University of Utah where he heads a research team studying the poisons that can become painkillers.

    Dr. Olivera gives massive credit to Filipino fishermen who work on the first stages of the research. They identify the seashells, know where to get them, how to handle them. They do this with no expensive equipment, just their expertise and prowess in the sea. They are a trove of knowledge that the research teams have found indispensable. It is to be said too that the Philippines indeed is a country of biodiversity in both land and sea from its location, geographical features, and the surrounding seas that are abundantly rich in species of sea life.

    At his lecture, Dr. Olivera presented startling videos of the predatory behavior of cone shells. They eat fish and worms using their poison to stun them in three ways: by tethering them (using their proboscis), or net capture (their own nets that emanate from their bodies) and ambush and assess (when the fish is immobilized, they move for the kill and the meal). Of course, that is Nature and the food chain at work.

    What is of interest is the channels used for the poison to get to the nerve fibers – a sodium channel and a potassium channel. Furthermore, the methods of using the poison are the lightning strike cabal or the motor strike cabal. Scientific terms but understandable in the videos. There is also a nirvana cabal that weaponizes insulin to turn the prey hypoglycemic and therefore helpless. There is even a group of cones known as colubraria that act like vampires – they suck blood from fish with the use of poison to stun them and make them pliant.

    The studies on the use of insulin to paralyze or incapacitate a fish have come up with a monmer insulin that can be used for diabetes, and as analgesics.

    The use of what they term conotoxins (poisons from cones) opens a lot of possibilities for the diseases mentioned earlier—diabetes, epilepsy, cancer pain.

    With all the unclassified seashells that keep coming up from our waters, Dr. Olivera says 20 percent of each batch netted are unknown and undescribed to science, i.e. many of them like the turrids and augers, the research teams have had to describe, classify and name. Here is where Dr. Olivera’s sense of humor takes over and he names them for his grade school teacher, his cousins, etc. (a prerogative of the first person to make them known to science). Moreover, he names whatever biochemical agglomerations are deconstructed and therefore defined, in Filipino. Such as Conantukin from “antukin” which is Filipino for sleepy and Contulakin from “tulak,” or push. I think they are analgesics. The foreigners pronounce them in another way with the accent on the second syllables. They are now scientific terms.

    An open forum followed the lecture, with a welter of questions from a surprisingly substantial and fascinated crowd of almost 50 people. The next day, Dr. Olivera was bound for Hong Kong to give another lecture. But before that he managed to give everyone a seashell with no poison.

    Everyone anticipates the new Philippine cone poisons to be turned to non-addictive, effective painkillers for the long term. This is already putting on the map Philippine research work from Philippine sources with extensive participation by Philippine fishermen.


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