HOUSTON — Could the key to a less painful life for people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis be — scorpions? A study conducted by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine found that the creepy crawlers’ venom may reduce the severity of symptoms in most sufferers of the disease.

Scorpion venom contains hundreds of components, but if one in particular can be isolated and used for treatment, it could be a huge breakthrough for the 1.3 million people in the United States diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease – one in which the immune system attacks its own body. In this case, it affects the joints,” explains lead author Dr. Christine Beeton, associate professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at the Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release. “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. As damage progresses, the joints become enlarged and are unable to move.”

Current treatments that often involve severe side effects mostly target the immune cells involved in those battling the condition. Dr. Beeton wanted to find an alternative way to treat patients by preventing FLS cells from damaging joints.

Previous studies revealed that a potassium channel on the FLS cells had a notable effect on the development of the disease. These channels open pathways on the surface of the cell that allows for the transmission of potassium ions, or small charged atoms that flow in and out of the cells, helping the cells carry out their functions. Many types of animal venom, including scorpions, work by blocking these channels to disrupt normal cell function in their enemies.

The researchers identified the venom component Buthus tamulus as responsible for blocking potassium pathways, but not other crucial nervous system channels. The researchers studied the effect of the component, called iberiotoxin, in rats and found that their rheumatoid arthritis reduced in severity. In some cases, they even reversed signs of the disease. What’s more, they found few serious side effects in the rats.

“Although these results are promising, much more research needs to be conducted before we can use scorpion venom components to treat rheumatoid arthritis,” says Beeton. “We think that this venom component, iberiotoxin, can become the basis for developing a new treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in the future.”

The study was published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

About Ben Renner

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