IT’S known as the “killer of killers” because it attacks and eats some of the deadliest snakes on the planet but its unique venom could one day relieve a lot of human suffering.
Meet the long-glanded blue coral snake of southeast Asia. The visually striking snake with a vibrant blue body and a blood red head is a specialist feeder that preys on other fast moving, venomous snakes.
It has the world’s biggest venom glands which grow up to one quarter of its body length — and it certainly knows how to use them.
But despite the snake’s notoriety, its venom has remained largely a mystery until now. A team of scientists including a number of Australian researchers have studied the animal’s paralysis-inducing venom and believe it could hold immense potential for use in human medicine, particularly in the area of pain relief.
Dr Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland who contributed to the study told news.com.au that when in search of the world’s next wonder drug, he likes to look in the most unusual places. It was the uniqueness of the blue coral snake and its fast-acting venom which drew him to it.
“The speciality in my lab is to use evolution as our map, so we seek out the weirdest things we can find,” he said. “Because we have a very simple premise that if you want to find something new and wonderful for use in human medicine, you’re more likely to find it from a very unusual venom.”
Simply put, “We can’t predict where the next wonder drug is going to come from,” the venomologist said.
“Here out of this enigmatic, extraordinarily rare animal we have made a discovery that could greatly benefit human health.”
The snake can grow up to two metres long and its venom glands can reach 60 centimetres.
It has a fondness for eating young king cobra snakes and because it feeds on other venomous snakes which are capable of profound retaliation, it needs to be able to immobilise its prey almost instantly.
Therefore the long-glanded blue coral snake has developed venom which administers a “lightning strike electrical spasm throughout the body,” Dr Fry said.
Like scorpions it causes its prey to completely spasm.
The study, published this month in the journal Toxin, reveals how it achieves such a feat. The venom of the blue coral snake contains a number of unusual peptides that switch on all of its victim’s nerves at once, causing it to become instantly paralysed.
So what does this have to do with human health?
According to Dr Fry it works to act on a particular type of sodium channel that is important for the treatment of pain in humans.
“Where it’s acting is on sites that are extremely important for pain,” he said, and the insights gained from how the venom works could yield important medicinal developments.
“Even if it doesn’t itself become a drug, which it still may, it already immediately teaches us about how those channels work which means we have more data for drug design,” he said.
“No matter what we’ve gained a massive amount of new knowledge about how these channels work.”
For Dr Fry the study is also a lesson in the importance of conservation. While he likes to search out the most unique and venomous creatures on the planet for what they can potentially teach us about human health, the declining biodiversity of our environment means it’s an increasingly difficult task.
Like plenty of other species, the long-glanded blue coral snake faces a tough and uncertain future.
“It’s an incredibly rare snake and it’s becoming only rarer,” he said. Because the big monsoonal forest in southeast Asia which it calls home “are being wiped out at an absolutely shocking rate”.