The black mamba, Dendroaspis polylepis polylepis, is one of the most lethal snakes on Earth. But a team of researchers in France found that compounds in the snake’s venom have the same pain-banishing effect on mice that morphine does.

The compounds, called mambalgins, appear to work by blocking certain channels in nerve cells. Under acidic conditions, these channels open up, triggering pain signals. By preventing the flow of charged atoms through these channels, the mambalgins stop pain signals in their tracks.

The work highlights such acid-sensing channels as a potential target for pain treatment, says neuroscientist Candice Askwith of Ohio State University, who was not involved in the study. Morphine and other opioids work well, she says, “but they do have limitations and they do have side effects. So having an alternative chemical or pathway that could be manipulated would be a great advantage clinically.”

Molecules found in the venom of snakes, predatory sea snails and many other animals have been widely studied for their therapeutic effects in conditions ranging from diabetes to cardiovascular disease. The venom toxins home in on specific nerve channels, activating or deactivating them. While some snake venom compounds cause pain, the researchers noticed those in black mamba venom seem to do the reverse.