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Here’s to Your Health

JOAN JACOBSON

A most intriguing presentation was give by Dr. J. Michael McIntosh, research professor of biology and research director and professor of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah. When he was a student at the university, he worked as a lab assistant. Now he has students working in his own laboratory. In the course of his work in the laboratory, he and his mentor, university biologist Baldomero Olivera, discovered that cone snail venom had sedative powers.

In December (2005), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Piralt, a painkiller and sedative, that gets its potency from cone snail venom. In the laboratory, the venom was isolated, tested and finally fabricated to become an effective painkiller that would block the sensors that transmit pain without blocking the motor system that could cause a patient to become paralyzed.

McIntosh says that he has always been interested in basic research and says, "You don’t know where you’re going until you get there. As with many basic science discoveries, the clinical importance of the discovery wasn’t appreciated at the time." He has combined his "bench research" with his medical practice in psychiatry. His research process is to examine and isolate the venom, chemically analyze and, finally, re-produce it in the laboratory.

McIntosh has discovered a previously unrecognized molecule that could serve as a target for new drugs designed to combat chronic nerve pain. He found that the ocean dwelling cone snails use their venom to sting and kill prey such as worms, frogs and fish. These snails hide under rubble and harpoon their prey. The fish become paralyzed when hit with the snail venom. Another species of snails have a cone-like mechanism that is able to suck prey into the cone and anesthetize it so that it can be consumed by the snail. This can transfer to paralyzing of a patient’s muscles during surgical procedures. Harvesting of the snails is the work of contracted fishermen who ship the snails, live from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

McIntosh estimates that there are between 500 and 700 species equating to tens of thousands of different toxins. Each of these toxins appears to act on the nervous system of the prey. It is fascinating that the toxins produced are tested to separate harmful side effects while preserving the therapeutic effect of the drug.

Parkinson’s disease is another area of interest for the doctor. He says that 300,000 individuals contract the disease every year. Of these, 15 percent are between ages 64-74, and 30 percent are between 74 and 80. It is found that dopamine, a normal chemical in the body, diminishes with age. The brain releases dopamine, and researchers find that not enough is produced in people with Parkinson’s. The amazing fact is that when these older individuals smoked, they have lower rates of Parkinson’s than those who do not. Apparently, the nicotine receptor in the brain works to stimulate dopamine production in these older smokers. So, if the nicotine is stimulating, perhaps the harmful cancer-producing property of nicotine could be manipulated and removed so that natural dopamine could be produced in the brain. McIntosh is investigating how to remove the addictive aspect of nicotine and still preserve the beneficial aspects of nicotine. He says that 400,000 Americans die of lung cancer each year. Incidentally, this is higher that the rate of breast cancer.

McIntosh further explains that one-sixth of the population is afflicted with chronic pain in the form of arthritis, cancer, injured nerves from trauma, shingles, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. His premise is to produce strong pain medications that are not addictive. The doctor is suggesting that pharmaceutical companies be licensed to develop non-addictive drugs to deal with severe chronic pain. Presently, these pain relieving, opiate drugs become ineffective after about two weeks, not to mention the addictive aspect associated with them. Once these substances are isolated, they can be replicated and synthesized without the addictive properties.

Dr. McIntosh is a true pioneer who struggles for grants to support his work. It is sad that the work of good people, in the quest for pain relief for so many individuals, may be lost because of lack of outside funding. It would be a miracle for those with chronic pain to be able to find relief from their suffering.

Finally, I would like to correct an error in my most recent article in "Here’s to Your Health" when I wrote that the annual budget for breastcancer.org was $4 billion. It should read $4 million.


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