The key to reducing the skin thickening and inflammation caused by psoriasis might be crawling under your feet.
Fire ants, which are a nuisance on a good day and a potentially dangerous swarm on a bad one, carry small amounts of venom in their bodies.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a fire ant bite, you’re familiar with its sharp sting.
Now, doctors believe this venom may be the future of treatment for the common chronic inflammatory skin condition.
What is psoriasis?
More than people in the United States — including celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Eli Roth, and Stacy London — have been diagnosed with psoriasis, an autoimmune skin condition.
The most common form of psoriasis is plaque psoriasis.
It causes red, inflamed patches that often develop silvery white scales. These patches can itch, burn, and eventually crack open and bleed.
Psoriasis is a chronic condition.
Once you’re diagnosed with it, you may deal with symptoms of the disease for the rest of your life.
That’s why safe treatments, which can reduce symptoms but not cure the disease, are so important for people living with the condition.
Topical treatments, like medicated lotions and ointments, are among the most commonly prescribed. These medicines may contain steroids, and after prolonged use, skin bruising and thinning can be a common side effect.
Light therapy is frequently used, too.
Phototherapy treatments focus ultraviolet light on the patches of psoriasis. However, this treatment can elevate some people’s risk for skin cancer. It can also require several trips to the doctor for treatment each week.
In recent years, researchers developed a series of systemic medications, or biologics, that work throughout the body to ease symptoms and prevent future inflammation.
These biologics are used primarily in people with moderate to severe psoriasis, but they can be costly.
Now there’s a new hope for psoriasis treatment.
Why fire ant venom?
The main component of fire ant venom is a toxic compound called solenopsin.
This venomous compound chemically resembles ceramides, which are molecules your body uses to maintain a healthy protective skin barrier.
Researchers from Emory and Case Western Reserve universities used solenopsin analogs, or a less toxic form of the venom, in a mouse model to test the compound as a possible psoriasis treatment.
They found that solenopsins reduced skin thickness by 30 percent compared to control groups, according to the study published in .
“We believe that solenopsin analogs are contributing to full restoration of the barrier function in the skin,” said Dr. Jack Arbiser, professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine, in a press release. “Emollients can soothe the skin in psoriasis, but they are not sufficient for restoration of the barrier.”
The venomous treatment also showed promising results in another area of psoriasis treatment.
The mice who had received the solenopsin analog, which was applied in a skin cream, also had 50 percent fewer immune cells infiltrating the skin.
“In a previous paper, we demonstrated that solenopsin analogs biochemically act as ceramide analogs,” Arbiser told Healthline. “Unlike ceramides, solenopsin does not get metabolized to sphingosine-1 phosphate, a pro-inflammatory molecule.”
That means because the analogs don’t break down the way ceramides do, treatment with solenopsin analogs may reduce immune cells and inflammation.
That may shorten psoriasis episodes and prevent future lesions.
The future of fire ant treatments
This study holds promise for the use of lab-manufactured fire ant venom as a treatment for psoriasis symptoms.
However, researchers and doctors are a long way from prescribing any such medicine.
“The time from research development through human trials to FDA approval can take many years, and sometimes as long as 10 to 20 years,” Dr. Jennifer Gordon, a board-certified dermatologist with Westlake Dermatology in Texas, told Healthline.
“Depending on the pretrial data and designs of the study, we likely will not see this readily available for many years. However, the FDA has been known to fast track certain life-saving medications. Being a topical application, this may be available sooner than similar systemic medications.”
Arbiser says he and his colleagues have made a step toward this approval process, but they need a partner.
“The molecules have been patented, but we would need to license this out to a pharmaceutical company who would do the studies that are required for the FDA for a clinical trial,” he said.
The fire ant venom treatment may be more effective for some and with fewer side effects and a lower cost.
“It works through a completely different mechanism than steroids do,” Arbiser said, “and we assume that it would not cause thinning of the skin. In addition, it is easy to synthesize and thus might potentially be cheaper than other treatments.”
If the idea of applying venom to your skin alarms you, don’t let it.
“Obviously, fire ant venom is considered toxic, but the authors [of the study] developed a derivative of solenopsin that seems to not degrade into the inflammatory, or toxic, version of the venom,” Gordon said. “If this holds true in human models, then it can be a safe medication.”
“We did not see toxicity to mice when the medicine was given topically,” Arbiser noted. “Of interest, Botox (Botulinum toxin) is one of the most toxic of all known substances to humans, but when delivered locally is not toxic but instead very beneficial.”