A handful of University of Utah researchers for years have investigated the venom of marine snails and how it might be transformed into a safer alternative to opioid painkillers.

Now, they have new backing to expand their research. The U. this week said it has received $10 million from the Department of Defense to further study cone snail venom and search for similar compounds from the venom of other marine organisms. Years from now, they hope, a synthetic version of the venom will become a substitute for drugs like morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone.

“We’re going back to natural sources to find the next generation of pain drugs,” said Russell Teichert, a research associate professor in the Department of Biology.

Acute and chronic pain is a common problem for military personnel. While opioids are highly effective at blocking pain signals to the brain, the DOD is looking for medication that won’t result in addiction or the chance of a fatal overdose, said J. Michael McIntosh, one of the lead U. researchers.

Drugmakers are similarly on the hunt for substitute drugs, as opioid overdoses continue to kill thousands of people each year nationally. In Utah, 24 Utahns died from prescription opioid overdoses in each month of 2015, according to the state Department of Health. They are responsible for more deaths than drugs in all other categories.

McIntosh and another U. researcher, Baldomero Olivera, have isolated and studied portions of the cone snail venom for decades. The small organisms use the venom to stun and consume prey, including small fish, and it turned out that portions of the venom, known as peptides, were effective as painkillers

In 2004, their work led to the creation of Prialt, a drug sometimes used for people with severe pain when morphine is no longer effective. However, the drug has relatively limited use because it must be injected into the spinal cord, McIntosh said.

More recently, the scientists have worked with a Seattle biotechnology company, Kineta Inc., which is hoping to develop a similar painkiller that could be injected like a traditional medication or vaccine. The military also is interested in that project, and has partially funded it. McInstosh, who also works as a psychiatrist for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the Kineta drug is likely still several years away.

Now, the expanded research team of about 30 hopes it can figure out how to create a drug that could be ingested in pill form. This would make it more widely accessible to patients, McIntosh said.

“We’ve never had the money to really go after a therapeutic drug, so this allows us to really focus on that,” Teichert said of the new funding.

( Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Various Conus shells on display in the south biology building at the University of Utah in 2015. The Department of Defense is now providing $10 million in funding to the U. to research whether compounds from the venom of cone snails and other marine organisms can lead to painkiller alternatives to addictive opioids.

He said some of the funds will support searching for new pain-relieving compounds from the venom of different types of marine organisms. Opioids originated from the poppy plant, and aspirin from willow bark — but Teichert said the ocean has been a largely unexplored region when it comes to new types of drugs.

“It’s hard to access the organisms,” he said, adding the U. team plans to take a yearly trip to collect new material from the sea.

Opioids act on specific nerve receptors to help eliminate high levels of pain. But shutting down that receptor can have the unintended consequences, such as shutting down respiratory receptors, said McIntosh.

But there are other receptors found in the body’s “pain pathway” leading to the brain, which the researchers hope can be effectively blocked with a new venom-based drug.

“Being able to act on a different receptor might mean being able to block the pain transmission, without getting the same side effects of acting on an opioid receptor,” he explained.

Researchers and staff will team up from programs across the university in coming months. The departments of pharmacology and toxicology, medicinal chemistry, anesthesiology, biology and psychiatry all will be involved in the research effort, Teichert said.

”It’s a pretty diverse group of scientists who are trying to come together to solve a big problem,” he said.