Sunday, November 30, 2003

The Irony of Nature: Blowfish Farms?

A tiny Canadian company wants to use poison from a fish -- a substance more toxic than cyanide -- to help cancer patients suppress pain or to wean heroin addicts off their habit.

The new drug is derived from a blowfish poison -- a substance so dangerous that a mere trace can paralyze a person within minutes.

The blowfish is known to gourmets as the source of the sometimes deadly Japanese fugu delicacy, a dish that can be prepared only by trained and licensed chefs, because the slip of a knife can poison the food, causing the diner to drop to the ground convulsing and gasping for air.

It has been described as the culinary version of Russian roulette.

But the drug derived from the poison, tetrodotoxin, has already passed two phases of clinical tests, and doctors conducting early surveys say it eased pain in terminally ill cancer patients, where no other pain medication had worked.


Researchers injected patients with several micrograms of Tectin -- a quantity so small it can't be seen with the naked eye -- twice a day for four days, and found that nearly 70 percent experienced a reduction in pain.

Pain relief began around the third day of treatment, and often lasted after the final injection. In some cases, the relief extended beyond 15 days, the study showed.

Tectin, a sodium channel blocker, stops nerves from sending pain signals to the brain.

The company says Tectin differs from other painkillers in that it doesn't have the same side effects as morphine and its derivatives, doesn't interact with other medicines and is not addictive. It is up to 3,200 times stronger than morphine.

The success of the early Tectin tests is a small coup for a company that has set its sights on the $38 billion North American painkiller market, some 10 percent of which comes from managing cancer pain.

Wex says that each puffer fish can provide about 600 doses of the drug from within its liver, kidneys and reproductive organs, so there is no shortage of the toxin.


But researchers and analysts are not yet touting Tectin as a drug to rival morphine. Wex still has to take its drug through crucial phase III trials, where it ramps up its test numbers to at least 400 patients.

The drug also faces an image problem.

"Because it's associated with death, it got a bad rap," said Sellers.

And although the scientific community may acknowledge the properties and benefits of the compound, it is less accepting of a drug derived from nature.

"There is a resistance from the medical community to accept treatments from the natural world," said Rob Peets, an analyst with Golden Capital Securities. "If this was a chemical product it would have been snapped up a long time ago."
If the preliminary promise of this drug holds up, it will be a big boon to the small Canadian company (whose stock has already increased 150%) as well as to many patients. If not, we can always 'blame Canada'.


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