In 2016, Reza was on an airplane, reading the in-flight magazine, when he came across an article describing the invasion of the lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the fish’s excruciatingly painful sting. Having worked on a Texas coral snake venom in the past, and mostly being a curious scientist, he checked the literature to see if anyone had figured out exactly how this venom works to cause pain, but his search came up empty.
Fast forward to 2017, when he proposed a project to a student in his lab, Stephanie: figure out how lionfish venom causes pain. She accepted the challenge, and they managed to make a major breakthrough that they published in a paper in 2018, which was the cover of the November issue of the scientific, peer-reviewed journal PAIN, outlining exactly what kind of pain lionfish venom causes, what pain-sensing cells it targets, and began to uncover its mechanism of action.
Since then, they have identified the molecule that the venom targets on pain-sensing cells’ surface, and have found ways to block the pain the venom causes. With this information in tow, they knew they had to create a cure that could help the large number of people each year that are stung by lionfish. Dedicated to their cause, and determined to ensure that this cure works well in humans, they were even their first human test subjects (but more on that another time).
Now, their work in the lab focuses on isolating the specific toxin in the venom that is responsible for causing pain, as well as understanding how certain species of fish (like moray eels and sharks) are able to eat lionfish. By understanding the evolution of the venom, as well as resistance mechanisms to the venom, they hope to better understand how this venom can be used for good.
To learn more about our research, go ahead and watch this short (3 min) video we made!