Among the animals whose venoms are being studied by pharmaceutical industry researchers are tarantula spiders, poison-dart frogs and predatory marine snails.
Details of the research are published in Target Pain, a new publication that looks at the different types of pain, what causes them, how they are being tackled today, and various new medicines that are under development in British laboratories.
"The UK-based pharmaceutical industry is investing more than £8 million a day in the search for new medicines, and the quest for better and more effective agents to reduce pain is high on the list of priorities," said Dr Trevor Jones, Director General of the ABPI.
"Our understanding of how pain is caused has increased enormously over the past few years, and the next decade will be critical in pain research. If we are successful, the lives of countless thousands of people will be improved beyond measure."
The importance of controlling pain is demonstrated by the fact that careful studies have shown that only about one-third of people say they have been pain-free for the past six months, and as many as one in 12 have experienced severe pain that is often partially or fully disabling.
In 1995, the healthcare cost of chronic pain exceeded that of coronary heart disease, AIDS and cancer put together. As a result, the report calls pain "the silent epidemic".
Three types of pain are considered in the report:
Acute pain - usually associated with injury or trauma, and which resolves within hours or a few days.
Chronic pain - pain which persists or recurs over many months or even years.
Neuropathic pain - which arises from within the nervous system itself, often without any obvious cause.
Predatory conus snails have proved particularly interesting to researchers. Up to four inches long, they feed on a variety of molluscs, worms and small fish. They immobilise their prey with venom that passes through a dart fired from a tentacle, and the venom can prove fatal to humans.
A derivative of a compound from a conus venom is in a late stage of development as a medicine, and could represent the first of an entirely new class of medicines for the management of neuropathic pain, currently the most difficult to treat.
Spiders have also provided leads, and the venom from the Chilean pink tarantula is being used as a research tool, providing a useful model for the synthesis of more stable derivatives.
Yet another lead from natural sources has come from studies on dart-frogs - a colourful group of amphibians with toxins on their skin that have been used by South American tribes to poison the tips of their blow-darts.
While this is too poisonous for use in itself, a derivative has been prepared that is as effective as morphine but lacks the side-effects. This is currently in the first phase of trials in patients. The reason that animal venoms - an apparently unlikely source for controlling pain in humans - are being studied is because of their actions on nerves. By studying these effects, it has been possible to gain further insight into pain mechanisms - and even to develop potential medicines based on the structure of the venoms themselves.
Written by a well-respected medical writer, Dr Mike Hall, Target Pain is the latest in the ABPI's series of reports studying individual disease areas. It is available free from the Publications Department, ABPI, 12 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY; phone 020 7930 3477 extn. 1446; or email email@example.com.
Note to editors
Target Pain is the 14th in a series of guides charting the pharmaceutical industry's progress in major disease areas. Copies of the other guides, also free, are available from the address above. Those still in print include: Target Cancer, Target Crohn's and Colitis, Target Epilepsy, Target Osteoporosis, Target Schizophrenia, Target Rheumatoid Arthritis, Target Parkinson's, Target Diabetes, Target Stroke, Target Depression, Target Migraine, Target Prostate, and Target Alzheimer's.
For further information, please contact: ABPI Press Office 020 7747 1410