In the early 1970s, German expat Gunter Holzmann was working in the Bolivian jungle when his arthritis flared up. The locals told him to climb a tree infested with fire ants and to let them bite him. He did and his symptoms subsided.
Soon, Holzmann teamed up with a local rheumatologist who tested out the ant venom treatment on patients in Bolivia, and it wasn’t long before researchers at the University of Miami caught wind of this experiment and began working on a treatment called Zonex. But it didn’t go anywhere.
Still, western medicine didn’t give up on venom as a cure and has examined venom from insects like bees and scorpions as a possible treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
Of course, venom therapy is nothing new. Traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine uses ant venom to treat arthritis, while Moroccans were known to use it as a treatment for lethargy. And insects, in general, have been used for a variety of treatments from wound stitching and healing to curing headaches, toothaches and diarrhea.
Most recently, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., discovered that one of the several compounds found in the deadly venom of the Indian red scorpion stopped the progression of rheumatoid arthritis in rat models. In addition, some of the rodents showed improvements in inflammation and joint mobility. Their findings were published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
There is a specialized type of cell in the joints called fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS) that plays an important role in rheumatoid arthritis, and a potassium channel on the membrane of these cells contributes to its development. What the Baylor study found was that the scorpion venom compound iberiotoxin could block the potassium channel and halt the progression of arthritis.
“Scorpion venom has hundreds of different components,” said Dr. Mark Tanner, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine and lead study author, in a statement. “One of the components in the venom of the scorpion called Buthus tamulus specifically blocks the potassium channel of FLS and not the channels in other cells such as those of the nervous system. It was very exciting to see that iberiotoxin is very specific for the potassium channel in FLS and that it did not seem to affect the channels in other types of cells.”
While this all seems very promising, it’s important to note that these studies are still very experimental in nature and have not been extensively tested on humans.
“It’s really a developing area and there’s very little information that I can find around this therapy,” says Dr. Sian Bevan, chief science officer of the Arthritis Society. “For any treatment for any disease, we have to make sure that the initial findings from animal models can be translated to humans.”
She says that the main thing to keep in mind when looking at venom as a possible treatment is that all the different venoms are made up of various compounds. It requires careful analysis of all those different component parts — and separating the ones that work from the ones that could be potentially fatal — to see how they will affect the biochemistry in the animal models.
“Right now, the best therapies for arthritis are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, disease-modifying drugs, and lifestyle changes around diet, exercise and physical therapy.”