Oct. 31 - French scientists say the venom of the Black Mamba, one of the world's deadliest natural poisons, could hold the secret to new forms of pain relief. Jim Drury reports.
The black mamba is one of nature's deadliest creatures, with venom that can kill an adult human within an hour. In captivity, snake handlers like Henko van Rensburg, must milk them regularly... or risk a fatal bite. SOUNDBITE (English) SNAKE HANDLER, HENKO VAN RENSBURG, SAYING: "The Black Mamba has a neurotoxin venom, that means it paralyses you, it literally takes your nervous system and it shuts it down completely. It has the fastest acting venom of any snake in the world, and it has the most of any African snake." But deadly though it is, French scientists believe the snake's poison might also hold the key to new forms of pain relief. Anne Baron led a French National Research Council team curious about the venom's chemistry. What they found surprised them. SOUNDBITE (French) RESEARCHER, ANNE BARON, SAYING: "In Mamba venom, we were surprised to identify two small proteins -- Mambalgines -- that can reduce the electrical activity of some ion channels that are found in neurones that transmit pain information." Removing the venom's potent toxins, the team isolated the purified proteins and used them in experiments, first with frog cells in a petri dish, then on human cells. Finally the mambalgines were tested on living mice. SOUNDBITE (French) RESEARCHER, ANNE BARON, SAYING: "When we injected the mambalgines into mice, we were pleased to see they could reduce pain in as powerful a manner as morphine." Baron says the secret lies in the way mambalgines interact with human nerves, affecting the transmission of pain signals. According to institute director Eric Lingueglia, the proteins could potentially treat conditions currently resistant to existing drugs. SOUNDBITE (French) INSTITUTE DIRECTOR ERIC LINGUEGLIA SAYING: "Some cancerous pains or some types of pain linked to the nervous system are not responsive to morphine treatment. So any new molecules that have novel mechanisms will be interesting tools to try and treat pains that are resistant to opiates." At Johannesburg's Crocodile and Reptile Park, Henko van Rensburg handles the black mamba with great care. While he's aware that it's venom may well lead to a new generation of powerful pain-killers, he says for now, the snake's poisonous reputation cannot be underestimated.