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Deadly snake could hold key to pain relief

AAP logoAAP 31/10/2016 Stuart Layt

It's described as a "killer's killer" but a striking southeast Asian snake could provide clues to improving pain management in humans.

Australian scientists researching the long-glanded blue coral snake have found its venom has a devastating effect on any bite victim, triggering full body spasms by causing all nerves to fire at once.

Associate Professor Bryan Fry, from the University of Queensland's School of Biological Science, says the venom is unlike any other because the blue coral snake specialises in hunting other snakes.

"It specialises in feeding on other venomous snakes, who in turn specialise in feeding on other venomous snakes," Prof Fry said.

"So that's driven the venom away from how other snakes' neurotoxin normally works, into a situation that's much more similar to a scorpion or a cone snail."

The snake itself is a deep blue colour with a striking bright-red head and tail, and possesses the biggest venom glands of any snake in the world, running a quarter the length of its body.

Prof Fry said the decision to study the snake was general curiosity, but the qualities of the venom they've uncovered could lead to major breakthroughs in pain medication.

"The way that it's doing it is acting on sodium channels, which are an important part of how the body processes pain," he said.

"The components in the venom are so potent that they could very well be usable in the future as treatment for pain, and that will be the next stage of the research."

The research, involving scientists from Australia, China, Singapore and the US, is published in the journal Toxins.

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