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Poison Frogs and the Search for a Painkiller Alternative to Opioids

New Insights into Frogs' Nervous System Evolution May Inform Novel Pain Agents

An unanswered question in the study of poisonous frogs has been why the animals’ neurotoxins are not lethal to the frogs themselves. Findings from a recent study conducted at University of Texas, Austin have shed new light on the mystery, and the information may be useful in the development of new painkillers that are effective and safer than opioid alternatives. Co-first author Rebecca Tarvin, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin, commented, “I’ve been wanting to understand how organisms could acquire neurotoxins, [which] requires an animal to reorganize their nervous system. It almost seems unlikely that something like that would evolve.” The team’s findings are published in the journal Science.

The researchers examined a class of poison frogs who possess the toxin epibatidine, similar in composition to morphine. The frogs do not produce the compound, but acquire it by eating poisonous mites and ants. It is secreted from the skin, providing a substantial advantage in survival from predators. In answering the mystery of why this ingestion is not lethal to the frogs, the team identified a genetic mutation of the nerve cell receptor that allows passage of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine while blocking epibatidine, and thus the toxic effect. The team believes that applying this insight to the biochemical process in humans may be the key to development of nonaddictive opioid sparing painkiller alternatives.

Read more about the study and possible implications.

The journal abstract may be read here.

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