Turning tarantula venom into pain relief

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(SACRAMENTO) — Researchers at UC Davis are developing a new type of pain medication from an unusual source — tarantula venom.

The project is part of the NIH Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, aimed at ending opioid addiction and creating non-addictive therapies to treat pain.

Vladimir Yarov-Yarovoy, a professor of physiology and membrane biology, and Heike Wulff, a professor of pharmacology, are leading the 20-person team using computational biology to turn a poisonous peptide into one that can relieve pain. Peptides are smaller versions of proteins.

The team is using software called Rosetta create different iterations of the tarantula peptide.

“Spiders and scorpions have millions of years of evolution optimizing peptide, protein and small-molecule poisons in their venom, which we can take advantage of,” said Bruce Hammock, a distinguished professor of entomology, who is working on the new pain reliever. “The same venoms that can cause pain and neurological dysfunction can also help nerves work better and reduce pain.”

Approximately 20 percent of adults in the U.S., around 50 million, are affected by chronic pain. About 11 million are affected by high-impact chronic pain, defined as pain that lasts three months or longer and restricts a significant activity, like being unable to work outside the home, go to school or do household chores.

A few non-opioid medications are available to help those with chronic pain, and complementary or integrative health approaches can help. In general, though, people with chronic pain have limited options for pain relief.

“For strong pain, drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin are just not strong enough. Opioids are strong enough, but they have the problem of tolerance development and addiction,” said Wulff.

Pain relief innovation at UC Davis

A new pain reliever from tarantula venom isn’t the only non-narcotic drug being developed at UC Davis. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration granted a fast-track designation to a non-narcotic drug candidate from EicOsis LLC, a pharmaceutical company founded by UC Davis distinguished professor Bruce Hammock to treat chronic pain in humans and companion animals.

Hammock holds a joint appointment with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

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