The Indian red scorpion is one of the deadliest scorpions walking this earth. Without treatment, a sting from this animal can kill a human being within 3 days. However, while scorpion venom may sound frightening, a recent study shows that it may help to alleviate rheumatoid arthritis symptoms – at least in rats to begin with.
Although mice models are far different from human models, this new development in RA research still proves to be quite interesting. Since the exact cause of RA or a cure have yet to be uncovered, studies such as this one may potentially help researchers to better understand how the disease behaves. As a result, they can gain some perspective into the best approaches to treating RA.
The potential to reverse RA damage
The new study was published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. It was led by Dr. Christine Beeton, an immunologist and associate professor, and fellow researchers at Baylor College of Medicine. The research team uncovered one of numerous components in scorpion venom that may help to reduce severe RA symptoms in animal models and in a few cases, possibly even reverse joint damage caused by the disease. “Cells called fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS) play a major role in the disease. As they grow and move from joint to joint, they secrete products that damage the joints and attract immune cells that cause inflammation and pain,” said Dr. Beeton. As RA continues to progress, the joints become enlarged and immobile.
“In previous work, we identified a potassium channel on FLS of patients with rheumatoid arthritis and found that the channel was very important for the development of the disease,” said Dr. Beeton. So, the researchers wanted to uncover ways to block this potassium channel, known as KCa1.1, in order to prevent the cells from damaging the joints. Yet, in order to do so, they needed to take into consideration the exact mechanism of potassium channels. A potassium channel functions by permitting potassium ions (small atoms) to move in and out of cells. This mechanism is important because it allows the cells to perform their vital functions and responsibilities. Animals, such as scorpions, have venom that can block the mechanism of these channels. Since scorpion venom works by paralyzing and killing prey, the researchers wondered if it could also prove useful in curing RA. “What can be used in scorpions to kill an insect, we can perhaps use to our benefit to treat diseases,” said Dr. Beeton.
What is it about the venom?
The component in the scorpion venom that the researchers uncovered is known as iberiotoxin, which is found in the Indian red scorpion (also known as Buthus tamulus). It precisely pinpoints and blocks the potassium channel of FLS, leaving the other channels in other cells, such as those of the nervous system, unharmed. “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, which might explain the lack of tremors and incontinence,” said Dr. Mark Tanner, the first author of the study, who is also from Baylor College of Medicine.
Fewer side effects were seen when using scorpion venom
Dr. Beeton and her fellow colleagues wanted to see if iberiotoxin could pinpoint and block the potassium channel of FLS and reduce severe RA symptoms in rats. As they began to inject the rats with iberiotoxin, they noticed a halt in the disease’s progression and in a few cases, even reversal of already present RA damage to the joints. What’s more, the researchers stressed that unlike other types of treatments for RA, fewer side effects were seen with the scorpion venom. “We are scared of scorpions, we are scared of snakes, we are afraid of spiders - we don't want them around us. But if we look at them from another side, if we look at them as mostly banks of compounds, then we have another view of them,” said Dr. Beeton.
Although Dr. Beeton and fellow researchers stressed that the results of this particular study are promising, they have yet to test their methods on a human population. Still, they plan to continue their research on finding a cure for RA. “We think that this venom component, iberiotoxin, can become the basis for developing a new treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in the future,” concluded Dr. Beeton.
Facts about scorpion venom
To date, some known facts on scorpion venom include the following:
- Scorpion venom is produced in the scorpion’s tail (telson).
- The tip at the end of the scorpion’s tail is called the aculeus. It is through the aculeus that a scorpion delivers its venom;.
- A scorpion is able to control the potency of their venom, depending on whether they wish to defend themselves or kill their prey.
- All scorpions are poisonous, yet only around 25% produce venom that is harmful to human beings.
- Young children are at a higher risk of scorpion venom due to their size.
- In the United States, the only scorpion that is capable of killing young children through its venom is known as the Arizona bark scorpion (also known as Centruroides sculpturatus).
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects over 1.5 million individuals in the United States. It is triggered when the immune system mistakenly attacks its own body and it causes pain, swelling, and stiffness of the joints. For now, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, steroids, and biologic drugs are available to help manage RA and protect the joints from severe side effects and infections. Moreover, anti-inflammatory drugs and different types of therapies (physical and occupational) are available to help alleviate RA symptoms. Still, researchers are constantly working towards discovering better treatment options for RA. A natural venom (or poison) from a scorpion makes for a rather captivating headline – the irony is quite clear. However, it is one that should not be brushed off. The potential of a scorpion’s venom to help reverse RA symptoms is making its way into medical research. In the future, it may even become a standard of care for RA in the field of human medicine.