A deadly venom found in sea snails which can paralyse fish within a second has emerged as the latest chemical suspected to have infiltrated horse racing, with authorities scrambling to organise testing for the powerful painkiller.
Racing NSW and Racing Victoria integrity officials on Monday confirmed they had started screening for the mystery drug, which has subtypes known to be infinitely stronger than morphine.
It can also be extracted to be used for therapeutic purposes on humans in the form of the conotoxin-based Prialt.
Racing stewards have received intelligence that a form of sea snail venom has been imported into Australia and used to manage pain in horses suspected to have raced in both the thoroughbred and harness codes.
It is unclear in which state the latest fad is said to have emerged, but the Herald understands multiple racing authorities have been tipped off about its use and developed laboratory testing to weed out those who have dabbled in the product.
The substance is not entirely new to the industry and was understood to have been in use more than decade ago, but until recently had not again been on the radar of racing officials.
It's understood to dissolve from a horse's system very quickly and can help numb any pain before heading to the racetrack.
Sea snails are generally found in the bottom of the ocean in tropical climates.
Racing NSW said it had the ability to retrospectively test stored samples for the substance. It hasn't yet confirmed any positive swabs stemming from the chemical.
"When we get information we act on it and we have a screen for this drug now," Racing NSW chief executive Peter V'landys.
"At the moment it is not a part of the normal screening process, but we have the ability to target it and test for it."
RV executive general manager of integrity Jamie Stier confirmed his organisation had begun testing for the drug as part of its normal screening process.
Australian scientists from several universities have previously been working on developing new pain relief drugs using the chemicals from sea snail venom, which can be administered when morphine is no longer sufficient.
It has traditionally been hazardous to use on humans given the bad side effects it can induce, including hallucinations, memory loss and confusion.
But it is seen as a future alternative for pain relief given it is thought to be less addictive than opioid-based painkillers.
Researchers are hoping with more funding for trials conotoxins could be in clinical use within 10 years.
Venomous sea snails have been known to kill the nervous system of fish almost instantly before they eat their prey.
The suspected infiltration of the chemical into horse racing is the latest scourge for the industry, which earlier this year was rocked by the ban to Australia's most prolific thoroughbred trainer Darren Weir for possession of electrical shock devices.
Victorian-based Weir was rubbed out for four years and is still the subject of an ongoing police investigation.
Racing NSW stewards are also investigating the finding of human growth hormone (EPO) in a fridge at the property of Kembla Grange trainer Mick Tubman. He has been stood down from training.
NSW Police have also charged a nurse from Wollongong Hospital with the alleged theft of EPO from the hospital.
SEA SNAIL VENOM
* Sea snail venom contains hundreds of peptides known as conotoxins, which are used to cause paralysis or death. The chemical allows the venomous snails, who are carnivorous, to prey on animals as large as fish.
* When used in humans, the chemical produces an analgesic effect by stopping the transmission of nerve signals.
* Only one conotoxin-based painkiller, Prialt, is currently on the market, and can only be injected into the spinal cord. The drug also has multiple side effects such as hallucinations, memory loss and confusion, limiting its use.
* Multiple groups of Australian scientists are currently working on a safe, oral version of the drug for humans, with recent breakthroughs set to reduce the nation’s reliance on addictive painkillers.
* In 2010, Australian scientists injected venom from the cone snail to a group of laboratory rats which resulted in a reduction in pain "100 to 500" times more effective than commonly used pain relievers such as morphine or gabapentin. Lead researcher of the study David Craik says one of the biggest advantages is that the drug uses "different receptors" in the brain in comparison to highly-addictive opioids such as morphine.
Article courtesy of ACM and The Brisbane Times