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By Nils Pratley (Daily Telegraph 2nd December 1997)

Pink spider offers painless profit

THE drugs group Zeneca revealed yesterday that it has patented the venom of the pink Chilean tarantula and plans to use it to develop a painkiller that could replace morphine.

In the wild, pink Chilean tarantulas kill prey such as toads, frogs and mice painlessly. Zeneca hopes the venom's unusual quality could lead to a new class of drug. A Zeneca spokesman said: "You wouldn't be pumping people full of raw tarantula venom. What you would do is produce a synthetic version. It would be used in cases where people are in severe pain with cancer or nerve damage."

The spokesman was unable to give full details of the spider: "It's hairy with a pink tinge and makes your flesh creep just to look at it." But he said the venom's potential new use was discovered accidentally. "We were seeing whether it worked in the cardio-vascular area and someone decided to try it out in a pain model," he said.

The new drug has yet to enter clinical trials but is not thought to be addictive. "The idea is that if we can get this through to market, it would replace morphine," the company said. The work on tarantula venom was revealed as part of Zeneca's first reseach and development update for two years, which it used to counter arguments that its pipeline of new drugs is too weak to sustain the current level of growth. Zeneca said it has 26 new compounds in development. Tom McKillop, chief executive of the pharmaceuticals division, argued that drug sales could be doubled over the next few years. "There is plenty of fuel in the tank to drive us through 2001 and well into the next century," he said.

His confidence pushed the shares, which fell as low as 17.17 last month, up 60 to 19.50; a peak of 22.65 was achieved in July.

Zeneca has only one new drug in the third and final stage of development - Faslodex, for breast cancer. But Mr McKillop argued that extensions to other products, such as the heart drug Zestril, would help to generate short-term growth.

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