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A new tool against brain disease

University of Utah researchers isolated an unusual nerve toxin in an ocean-dwelling snail, and say its ability to glom onto the brain's nicotine receptors may be useful for designing new drugs to treat a variety of psychiatric and brain diseases.

"We discovered a new toxin from a venomous cone snail that may enable scientists to more effectively develop medications for a wide range of nervous system disorders including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression, nicotine addiction and perhaps even schizophrenia," says J. Michael McIntosh.

Discovery of the new cone snail toxin will be published Friday, Aug. 25 in The Journal of Biological Chemistry by a team led by McIntosh, a University of Utah research professor of biology, professor and research director of psychiatry, member of the Center for Peptide Neuropharmacology and member of The Brain Institute.

McIntosh is the same University of Utah researcher who as an incoming freshman student in 1979 discovered another "conotoxin" that was developed into Prialt, a drug injected into fluid surrounding the spinal cord to treat severe pain due to cancer, AIDS, injury, failed back surgery and certain nervous system disorders. Prialt was approved in late 2004 in the United States and was introduced in Europe last month.

Prialt, sold by Ireland's Elan Pharmaceuticals, took roughly 25 years to reach market after its discovery in venom from the fish-eating cone snail Conus magus or magician's cone. McIntosh says he expects it will take 10 to 20 years to develop new medications based on what is learned from the new toxin named alpha conotoxin OmIA (oh-em-one-ay) isolated from a cone snail species named Conus omaria, which lives in the Pacific and Indian oceans and eats other snails. It ranges from 1 to 3 inches long.

McIntosh discovered and analyzed the new toxin with help from University of Utah cone snail research pioneer Baldomero "Toto" Olivera, who i
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