Researchers at the University of California, Davis are using tarantula venom to develop a new type of pain medication that they hope will provide an alternative to addictive opioids.
The project is part of the NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, which is aimed at ending opioid addiction and creating non-addictive therapies to treat pain.
Opioid addiction has surged in the U.S. in recent years. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the country died from opioid-involved overdoses, according to the university.
“What we need are new medications, new therapies with improved risk profiles,” said David Copenhaver, director of Cancer Pain Management and Supportive Care at UC Davis Health. “There’s been a push to develop other, better, safer, less addictive — or zero addictive — medication and therapeutics for pain management.”
Copenhaver is a member of a 20-person team that is using computational biology to turn a poisonous peptide from the large and hairy spiders into one that can relieve pain.
Researchers say the same venoms from spiders and scorpions that can cause pain and neurological dysfunction can also help nerves work better and reduce pain.
The researchers are using an approach known as “toxineering,” where they try to modify the toxin in the tarantula venom to block pain signals but not create unwanted side effects.
To do this, they are using a computer program that lets them create many different iterations of the tarantula peptide, which they can then synthesize and test in a lab.
The university says the preliminary results are “extremely promising,” but a lot of work remains to be done.
The potential therapeutic candidates will need to be tested in animals. If they’re found to be safe, researchers will then carefully test them in humans.
Researchers estimate any new medication is at least five years away.