Published: Tue, April 04, 2017
Medical | By Sammy Miller

Heroin-like fish venom could help in development of new painkillers

Heroin-like fish venom could help in development of new painkillers

When scientists studied the blenny's venom itself (which was really hard to do-milking any animal for venom is no easy task, let alone tiny tropical fish), they found there were three types of chemicals at work.

Unlike other fish that inject their venom through their fins, blennies inject their venom into their predators through their fangs. Because the researchers used mice for the pain test, they can't rule out the possibility that the venom does cause pain when injected into other fish.

When the researchers did a proteomic analysis of extracted fang blenny venom, they found three venom components-a neuropeptide that occurs in cone snail venom, a lipase similar to one from scorpions, and an opioid peptide.

Bryan Fry, from the University of Queensland, explained that fish with venomous spines on their bodies "produce immediate and blinding pain".

The team discovered that many types of harmless coral reef fish, including non-venomous fang blennies, freeride on this evolutionary feat. This offers an entirely new avenue for the development of novel painkillers. These peptides were not selected for this use in the fish, but rather evolved because they also cause hypotension dizziness and induce uncoordination.

The researchers went into the study with "no grand hypothesis, just basic wonderment" according to Fry, but they plan to follow up the study by comparing and contrasting the composition of venoms from different blenny species. They discovered something pretty wild: That the fish attack predators with a venom that acts on animals' opioid receptors, the same ones activated by opium-based drugs. "The venom causes a drop in blood pressure probably from the presence of these peptides". "Usually we find some sort of venom-y secretion before [fangs] evolve, and the animals get much better at delivering it".

In the study, a team of worldwide researchers analyzed those glands and found the toxins are a chemical mix of different opioid peptides that act like morphine or heroine. Instead of creating pain, the blenny's poison simply serves as a way to boring the predator's senses while the small fish to swims away.

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Researchers described the uniqueness of the venom residing in the little fangs.

Their behaviour is also intriguing, he said, for the way they appear unafraid of predators and fight for territory with similar-sized fish. They have two large grooved canine, which they used to deliver the venom to their victims.

Still, even a non-lethal effect is enough to allow blennies to escape their predators.

Fang blennies live in the Pacific region, including on the Great Barrier Reef, and are popular as ornamental tropical aquarium fish.

Fry said the fang blenny was an "excellent example" of why nature and unique habitats must be protected, particularly the Great Barrier Reef.

Findings about blennies and painkillers bolster the need to protect the Great Barrier Reef and other fragile ecosystems.

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