Scientists believe that Southeast Asia’s rare blue coral snake, dubbed the “killer of killers,” might hold the key to developing powerful painkillers for humans.
According to new findings published in Toxin, researchers at University of Queensland and several other institutions revealed that the venom these long-glanded snakes secrete targets receptors that are important to pain in humans. By studying the blue coral snake’s venom, scientists hope to create a synthetic version and adopt certain properties from the poison as a method to treat pain.
“The venom targets our sodium channels, which are central to our transmission of pain,” said researcher Dr. Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland. “We could potentially turn this into something that could help relieve pain, and which might work better on us.”
These mesmerizing blue snakes with neon red heads and tails are considered to be the most dangerous snakes in the world. In fact, they are so lethal that they prey on young king cobras and other poisonous predators.
“Most snakes have slow-acting venom that works like a powerful sedative. You get sleepy, slow, before you die,” said Dr. Fry. “This snake’s venom, however, works almost immediately because it usually preys on very dangerous animals that need to be quickly killed before they can retaliate. It’s the killer of killers.”
Unlike other venomous snakes, the blue coral snake’s poison causes all the nerves in its prey’s body to turn on all at once, which forces the animal to enter a frozen state, known as spastic paralysis. Essentially, the venom prevents nerves from turning off their sodium channels, and the nerves go into overdrive.
The blue coral snake’s venom is an evolutionary marvel. The venom is produced and stored in the snake’s exceptionally long glands, which extends for about one quarter of its body length.
“It’s got freaky venom glands, the longest of any in the word, but it’s so beautiful,” Dr. Fry said.
This is also the first time scientists have seen this kind of venom in a snake before, let alone any other vertebrate species. Some animals, like scorpions and spiders, have similar venom, but never another snake until the blue coral. However, since the blue coral snake is a vertebrate, it’s evolutionarily closer to humans and therefore its venom could potentially be more useful in developing medicine.
Unfortunately, the blue coral snake is extremely rare and about 80 percent of its natural habitat has been destroyed, due to construction and palm plantation in Southeast Asia.
“We’re trying to see if there are any relatives of the long-glanded blue coral snake that would possess any different properties,” said Dr. Fry. “Some people say the only good snake is a dead snake but we’re trying to do the opposite here.”
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.