Could A Scorpion Take the Sting Out of RA?
Ever since I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I’ve kept my fingers crossed for scientists to identify new treatments or even to find a cure. (Metaphorically, of course! It would probably hurt to actually cross my fingers that much!) From parasitic worms to an electrical implant in the brain to a peptide found only in old world monkeys, I’ve seen RA research take some very interesting paths over the last ten years. And here’s another one.
The role of scorpion venom in RA in animals
A group of researchers led by Dr. Christine Beeton at Baylor College of Medicine has found that one of the hundreds of components in scorpion venom can reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis in animal models, without inducing the side effects associated with similar treatments.1 The study is published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
Fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS) are cells that play a major role in rheumatoid arthritis. As FLS cells grow and move from joint to joint in the body, they secrete products that damage joints and attract the immune cells that cause inflammation and pain. Many existing treatments target these immune cells, attempting to stop them from mistakenly attacking healthy joints. But, so far, no treatments are specific for FLS.2
Beeton and her team have been studying FLS, and they managed to identify a potassium channel on FLS in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Potassium channels work by essentially opening “gates” on the surface of cells that allow potassium ions – or small charged atoms – to flow in and out of the cell. This flow of ions is necessary for cells to serve their natural purpose and carry out their essential functions. But the potassium channel that Beeton’s team discovered also turned out to be very important for the development of rheumatoid arthritis.2
Components of scorpion venom and their impact on RA
But what does this have to do with scorpions?
Scorpions stings deliver venom, which is used by the arachnid to paralyze and kill its prey. During their study, scientists identified a particular component of scorpion venom called iberiotoxin. And it turns out that iberiotoxin blocks the potassium channel of FLS but not the channels in other cells, such as those of the nervous system.2
When the researchers treated rat models of rheumatoid arthritis with iberiotoxin, the treatment actually stopped the progression of the disease. In some cases, the treatment even reversed the signs of established disease, meaning that the rats had better joint mobility and less inflammation in their joints.2 And while other similar channel blocker treatments have produced negative side effects, iberiotoxin did not.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go out and find a scorpion friend to help with your RA! But the results of the study are promising. With more research, this component of scorpion venom could potentially become the basis for a new RA treatment in the future.
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