Experienced chefs know how to slice into the pufferfish to avoid the deadly tetrodotoxin, which disrupts the nervous system and can cause fatal paralysis of important muscles that control breathing and heart rate.
But the toxin of the spiky fish may also treat chronic pain, such as that related to chemotherapy. Researchers at the John Theurer Cancer Center have found that the toxin is 3,000 times more potent than the pain-killer morphine, without the crippling side-effects of addiction and nausea. So they are testing the tetrodotoxin-based pain reliever in a small group of cancer patients to ensure its safety and effectiveness. They will have to compare its efficacy against that of existing drugs used to treat chemotherapy pain before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will consider it for approval.