Tuesday, March 20, 2018 by Frances Bloomfield
Although scorpion venom is one of the deadliest chemicals in the world, it’s also one of the most useful. Multiple studies have shown this neurotoxin to have tremendous potential in the field of human medicine. The most recent of these studies, published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, has discovered yet another application for scorpion venom: halting the progression of 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,” explained Dr. Christine Beeton, an immunologist at the Baylor College of Medicine.
Beeton added that the joint pain associated with this condition could be caused by specific cells known as fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS). As these cells grow and move across the joints, they release substances that cause joint damage and draw the attention of inflammatory immune cells. In time, the joints increase in size until movement becomes difficult and painful.
FLS have one key weakness, however. Like many other cells, FLS have potassium channels through which potassium ions flow in and out. These ions are necessary for numerous cellular functions. As such, blocking these potassium channels can weaken cells and potentially induce cell death. In the case of FLS, Beeton and her colleagues were able to identify a specific potassium channel known as KCa1.1 in a previous study. They believed that blocking KCa1.1 could prevent or even stop FLS from damaging the joints due to the channel being crucial to the development of FLS.
To that end, the researchers turned to the venom of the Indian red scorpion (Buthus tamulus).”Scorpion venom has hundreds of different components. One of the components in the venom of the scorpion called [Indian red scorpion] specifically blocks the potassium channel of FLS and not the channels in other cells such as those of the nervous system,” said first study author Dr. Mark Tanner. (Related: Ancient natural substance may be the newest treatment for cancer: Scorpion venom found to be effective at identifying brain tumors)
Iberiotoxin, the component utilized in the study, was put to the test through rat studies. The researchers discovered that iberiotoxin stopped the advancement of rheumatoid arthritis in the animals. For some, iberiotoxin even reversed the symptoms of the disease. A number of the rats showed signs of decreased joint inflammation and better joint mobility.
Moreover, the use of iberiotoxin yielded no side effects. Paxilline is known to cause incontinence and tremors, none of which were observed with iberiotoxin.
Of this, Tanner remarked: “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.”
Though promising, Beeton, Tanner, and their colleagues have acknowledged that further studies would be needed. But in time, they believe that iberiotoxin could lay the foundation for new rheumatoid arthritis treatments.
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