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Black Mamba Venom Beats Morphine as a Painkiller

Black mambas' toxicity turns out to have applications other than rodent-killing

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A black mamba strikes. Photo: Tad Arensmeier

In Africa, when it’s necessary to take down fearsome black mambas—the world’s fastest venomous snake—locals must band together. The mambas are known to explosively strike in all directions, while raising a third of their 10-foot-long bodies into the air. Their venom, delivered through its black-colored jaws, is known to be some of the most potent in the world.

But black mambas’ toxicity turns out to have applications other than rodent-killing and village-terrorizing.  Its venom contains neurotoxins that work to paralyze small animals and, as researchers discovered, serves as a painkiller just as powerful as morphine, but without many of morphine’s side effects.

The researchers examined venom from 50 snake species before they discovered the mamba’s propensity for dulling pain. They narrowed the venom’s pain-killing effects down to a specific protein called mambalgins.

While morphine is highly addictive and may cause headaches, difficulty thinking, vomiting and twitching, the mamba medicine uses a different physiological pathway, which should produce fewer side effects. So far, the researchers have tested the potential drug on mice and human cells in the laboratory.

The scientists have no idea why the mamba would produce such a chemical, however. As they told the BBC, the pain killer’s existence is “really, really odd” and might have evolved to work in combination ”with other toxins that prevent the prey from getting away” or may just affect other animals, such as birds, differently than it does mice or other mammals.

So far, the researchers are injecting the pain killer directly into the spine, and they acknowledge that they’ll need significant product development and testing time before mamba venom becomes a hospital staple.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Snakes: The Good, the Bad and the Deadly 
Honey Badgers are Real 

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