Sea creatures' venom could be used to treat obesity, pain, more

SEATTLE - People are typically encouraged to steer clear of venomous creatures for the sake of their health. But, local biotechnology company Kineta is using toxins from sea anemones, as well as fellow sea creature the cone snail, to treat ailments ranging from arthritis to obesity.

Using animal products to treat serious diseases bucks current trends, which show the biotechnology industry concentrating more and more on chemical-based medicines.

"We think the natural route is still underexplored, and there are lots of opportunities for new drugs that are very effective and potent," said Dr. Shawn Iadonato, Kineta's chief scientific officer and executive vice president.

Kineta is conducting clinical trials on the synthetic compound ShK-186, originally derived from a sea anemone toxin, to treat autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, psoriatic arthritis and lupus.

The medications currently available for autoimmune patients - including steroids or methotrexate - have the unfortunate side effect of suppressing the patient's immune system. ShK-186 suppresses the inflammatory processes in these diseases but maintains normal immune function. The compound targets cells in the immune system that cause tissue damage but leaves the rest of the cells alone.

Kineta unexpectedly discovered ShK-186 may also enhance metabolic activity and shows potential as a treatment for obesity.

Kineta is also working on a therapy derived from the venom of the cone snail that may offer pain relief without the side effects of narcotics. The Rg1a peptide found in the venom of cone snails was used to create Conotoxin Rg1a, which Kineta reports can block pain signals from transmitting to the brain without affecting the brain itself.

Opiate pain relievers enter the brain and can be habit forming and pose the risk of accidental overdose. Because Conotoxin Rg1a does not affect the brain, is not believed to produce tolerance or addiction. The treatment does not alter cognition or suppress respiration like narcotics.

Iadonato believes Conotoxin Rg1a could be useful to injured and surgical patients. Kineta is currently working with the U.S. Army on post-surgical research to determine whether this therapy could improve the heart and lung function of injured patients.

These therapies are still in early development stages and will likely not be available to the public for at least five to seven years.