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The shell of the Conus regius, or crown cone snail. The snail’s venom provides the basis for a new painkiller. (Wikimedia Commons Photo / Nick Zantop)

If you didn’t know snails could be venomous, you’re not alone.

But it turns out some are, and a recent study found that one species in particular has a venom that could help solve the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States.

The study examined a drug made by Seattle-based biotech startup Kineta, using the venom from a Caribbean sea snail known as the crown cone. The snail’s venom attacks the brains of its prey to paralyze them. Researchers tweaked that natural ability to make the drug — called KCP-400 — block pain signals coming from injured neurons.

“Nature has evolved molecules that are extremely sophisticated and can have unexpected applications,” Dr. Baldomero Olivera, professor in biology at the University of Utah and co-author of the study, said in a press release. “We were interested in using venoms to understand different pathways in the nervous system.”

Researchers tested the drug on rodents that were experiencing pain after chemotherapy. They found that the drug was safe to use in the animals and that it stopped their pain for up to 72 hours, making it a potential replacement for common opioid painkillers.

Kineta CEO Dr. Shawn Iadonato, who co-authored the study, said in the release that the drug will likely not have the side effect related to opioid painkillers, as it is acting locally at the site of injury instead of affecting the entire central nervous system.

That could make it a huge player in the fight against a nationwide opioid addiction epidemic. As of 2015, about 2.5 million people in the U.S. abused opioids — either with prescription painkillers or heroin. Opioid overdoses caused more than 30,000 deaths that year.

A huge amount of opioid addictions start with a prescription for painkillers, so finding alternative treatments for chronic pain is a high priority in decreasing addiction.

KCP-400 is still in the early days of testing and would need to complete rigorous safety and efficacy trials before it could be approved for use in humans.

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