Hypebusting: Could fire ant venom cure psoriasis?

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Don’t believe the hype: health headlines dissected




A study* by Emory University has reportedly found that a component of fire ant venom could lead to a cure for the skin condition psoriasis. It’s a burning issue – could it really become an effective treatment?



Lipid molecules called ceramides maintain the biochemical barrier function of the skin and help to protect it. Ceramides assist the epidermis in retaining moisture and they’re used in topical skin preparations to soothe skin conditions. Although ceramides have these beneficial properties, however, under certain conditions they can be converted by cells into sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P); an inflammatory molecule.

The Emory University team used solenopsin – the main toxic component of fire ant venom – in a cream, enabling them to find out if analogues could perform the same function as ceramides and help restore the skin’s biochemical barrier function to relieve psoriasis.

The researchers synthesised two forms of the component, S12 and S14, which look like ceramides, but can’t be degraded into S1P. Skin preparations, containing 1% of these analogues, or similar compounds, were applied to laboratory mice for 28 days.

The team observed that after application, inflammation reduced and the barrier function of the mice’s skin was restored.



The treated mice showed reduction in two main features of psoriasis, including acanthosis (skin thickening and pigmentation) and hyperkeratosis (thickening of the skin’s outer layer). This pattern is very similar to the pathologic changes seen in human psoriasis.

Topical S12 and S14 treatment of mice was found to reduce epidermal thickness by around 30%. The preparation also caused 50% fewer immune cells to infiltrate the skin. Additionally, the activity of genes that may become ‘turned up’ by some of the currently available treatments for psoriasis, such as steroids and UV light therapy, decreased.



Although emollients are often used to soothe psoriatic skin, they only relieve the symptoms and don’t help to repair the skin’s barrier function. In addition, other frequently-used treatments for mild to moderate psoriasis, such as topical steroids, have side effects such as skin thinning and bruising.

The researchers believe that the use of the fire ant venom in treating the skin condition could lead to new treatments for human psoriasis, when combined with other remedies. “We believe that solenopsin analogues are contributing to full restoration of the barrier function in the skin,” said lead author Dr Jack Arbiser, PhD, Professor of Dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Combination therapies with solenopsin analogues and other modalities for psoriasis, such as glucocorticoids and UV light, may lead to long-term remission,” he added.


What the press said:

“THIS unlikely ingredient could relieve skin – but would you try it?” express.co.uk

“New cream based on fire ant VENOM offers hope of cure for psoriasis” thesun.co.uk

“Fire ant venom could be used to treat psoriasis” news.sky.com