02/02/2013 10:06 am ET

Mollusks Could Pave The Way For Future Medicines

The next big thing in medicine could come from odd-looking sea critters called mollusks.

In two new studies, researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University have discovered ways in which these sea creatures -- which include clams, squid and snails -- could help us develop better medicines.

In the first study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed the shipworm (which is actually not a worm, but a clam-like mollusk), which are known for sticking onto the wooden parts of ships and using bacteria to turn the wood into something the animals can feed off of and live on.

They found that shipworms use a bacteria that actually secrets an antibiotic, which is important because scientists are searching for alternatives to antibiotics used today to which bacteria are increasingly growing resistant.

In the second study, published in the journal Chemistry and Biology, OHSU researchers worked with University of Philippines and University of Utah scientists to examine a type of mollusk called the cone snail. They found that cone snails produce a chemical that affects brain nerve cells, which could be promising for future pain medications.

"This discovery tells us that these animals also produce compounds worth studying," study researcher Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., who is a biochemist at the University of Utah, said in a statement. "It's hoped that these studies may also provide us with valuable knowledge that will help us combat disease."

This is not the first time mollusks have been tapped as a potential resource in medicine. In 2011, University of Florida College of Medicine researchers published a study in the journal Nature examining how mollusks developed their nervous systems, brains and shells over time. They said that these findings could lead to future treatments for degenerative brain disease.