This Toxin May Treat Chronic Pain (And It Comes From The Strangest Place)
What do you get when you combine wasabi, scorpions, and human cells? A physiological response that might help solve the epidemic of chronic pain and inflammation, according to a new study published in Cell.
A collaboration between researchers at the University of Queensland and University of California San Francisco (UCSF), the study had the goal of searching for and isolating compounds in the Australian black rock scorpion that could be interesting to study in the future. And they found just that.
The researchers isolated a toxin that targets a receptor protein in our nerve cells. The receptor, officially named TRPA1, is the same receptor that's responsible for the intense side effects of eating wasabi. As a result, it's earned itself the nickname the "wasabi receptor." And since it targets this receptor, the toxin was named the "wasabi receptor toxin," or WaTx.
So what's so great about the wasabi receptor? For one, it's embedded in nerve endings all over the body. And when it's activated, it can trigger pain and inflammation. In fact, you can "Think of TRPA1 as the body's 'fire alarm' for chemical irritants in the environment," John Lin King, a Ph.D. student at UCSF, told Science Daily. The wasabi receptor is also activated by cigarette smoke and environmental pollutants, causing responses like coughing fits and airway inflammation, as well as famously strong foods like mustard, ginger, and onions.
But what was most interesting about the study's results was not how the receptor worked; it was how the wasabi receptor toxin was able to penetrate mammalian cells. Typically, substances have to enter a cell by way of a protein channel or through a specific process called endocytosis. But the WaTx was able to pass right through the cell wall. By observing the activity of WaTx, the researchers were able to learn a lot more about how the pain response and the inflammatory response function on a chemical level.
So what's the point of all this? Because this toxin is involved in a pain response, it could eventually be used to better understand the way our bodies deal with pain and inflammation, and even create pain treatments that could be used instead of opioids. And seeing that about 1.7 million Americans dealt with substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2017 alone, that's something we should all be paying attention to.