Researchers believe a neurotoxin found in pufferfish may be useful in treating neuropathic pain in cancer patients.

The neurotoxin, specifically called tetrodotoxin, or TTX, is being studied by a research team at the Brain and Spine Institute at the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Their goal is to determine whether TTX might be successfully used to treat the neuropathic pain caused by chemotherapy.

Interestingly enough, the majority of pufferfish species are poisonous, thanks to the very same neurotoxin. When a pufferfish feels threatened, it can balloon to a march larger size, making itself appear more intimidating to predators. Additionally, its body is covered in spiny needles, and its internal organs and skin contain varying amounts of TTX, a substance considered to be 100 times more lethal than cyanide.

TTX works by blocking the body’s ability to transmit pain signals. In a high dosage it causes the body to completely cease to function, such as in an animal or human who consumes a pufferfish. In a lower dosage, however, TTX might be able to relieve some of the symptoms of neuropathic pain, ultimately making patients feel more comfortable. The neurotoxin’s potential role in the treatment of neuropathic pain depends largely on the researchers’ ability to pinpoint an ideal dosage.

The team behind the study is hopeful they will find enough evidence to ultimately convince the Food and Drug Administration that a medicine incorporating TTX is a safe and effective alternative to other medications currently used to treat symptoms of neuropathy. Neuropathy symptoms are caused by the chemotherapy drugs themselves, with more than 40 percent of chemotherapy patients affected by these symptoms.

Typically chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain is treated with opioids like morphine, anti-convulsion medications or antidepressants. However, these types of medications generally come with a wide range of negative side effects, and doctors and patients have looked forward to medical researchers and drug companies uncovering an alternative.

The researchers conducting the TTX study claim that the neurotoxin would present very few, if any, undesirable side effects. The drug they are currently testing contains TTX and was made by WEX Pharmaceuticals. So far, the drug has been used in a phase II clinical trial in which patients who received an injection of it twice a day for five days experienced pain relief for up to eight weeks.

After the researchers at the Brain and Spine Institute finish perfecting the dosage, the drug will move on to a phase III clinical trial. The next step after that? If all goes well, the drug will be approved by the FDA and made available to cancer patients throughout the country who are in search of pain relief from their chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain.

Image by Leszek Leszczynski via Flickr


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