UH researchers use deadly snails to create pharmaceuticals, pesticides

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They are some of the most beautiful shells in Hawaiian waters, but don’t be fooled by their radiant colors.

“When you get stung by some of these species you have a 90 percent chance of dying,” University of Hawaii assistant professor Jon-Paul Bingham said.

Cone shells can kill. There have been 14 fatalities worldwide since 1790.

“There’s been a few stings in Hawaii, but no deaths, luckily,” Bingham said.

Bingham wants to keep it that way. For several years, he and other researchers have studied Hawaii’s 60 cone shell species.

“You wouldn’t think a snail would be venomous, but this guy is,” Bingham said.

It is the only lab in the world where researchers are controlling the diets of snails and then capturing their venom to make human pharmaceuticals and pesticides.

Bingham calls it making drugs from slugs.

“So what we’re doing is making these new little pharmaceutical chemists,” Bingham said.

He showed KHON2 how the cone shell attacks its prey. Once its brilliant, long, yellow tongue touches the fish, it injects a hypodermic needle into the animal. In this case, a capsule.

“Okay, there! Do you see the stuff in the container now? See all the droplets?” Bingham said.

The needle remains attached and the cone shell continues to shoot its venom.

“You see the harpoon there. Looks like a little hair. That’s the harpoon,” Bingham said.

The harpoon is the size and thickness of an eyelash.

“Just a fine little spray, but that’s enough to do you and I and a few other people over,” Bingham said.

As for Hawaii’s most deadly cone shell…

“This is conus obscurus. Obscure by name, obscure by nature. Stung by that you’ll be dead,” Bingham said.

It’s less than an inch long and there is no anti-venom.

“Size does not matter in this case,” Bingham said.

Anyone who doesn’t seek medical attention within hours will lose muscle control, slip into a coma, and die.

When it comes to cone shells, Bingham says look and leave.

“People just think it’s a marine snail. It’s going to do nothing to me. They’re wrong in this case. Cone shells can kill,” Bingham said.

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