In 2015, Charlotte A., an anthropologist and filmmaker based in the United Kingdom, had a horrific encounter with fire ants in Central America.
Charlotte, who has psoriasis, was working on a film in the Mayan jungle. “Whilst there, for three weeks, my feet were getting eaten alive with fire ants,” she says. “I couldn’t work out how it was happening. I was covered head to toe because I didn’t want anyone to see my psoriasis.”
It turns out the venomous insects were walking along her clothesline and falling into her socks.
“My feet were on fire. I was constantly bathing them in the river,” says the outdoor adventurer, who is currently organizing a trek to Mount Kilimanjaro for people with psoriasis. “It was really horrific. The pain was awful.”
At the same time, Charlotte’s psoriasis began to fade. “When I got back, my family noticed a huge difference in my skin. It took about three months for it to start flaring up again.”
So when Charlotte read a new study that tested fire ant venom on an animal model of psoriasis with success, her encounter with the insects started to make sense.
The study, done at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was published in the September 2017 issue of Scientific Reports. Using compounds derived from fire ant venom, researchers were able to decrease skin thickness in a mouse model of psoriasis by 30 percent, compared with controls.
“I found the article really interesting and fascinating,” says Charlotte.
Jack Arbiser, M.D., professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and lead author of the study, has been experimenting with fire ant venom for years. He’s researched the venom’s effect on blood vessel growth, as well as its potential as an anti-cancer agent.
The main toxic components of fire ant venom are called solenopsins. Solenopsins chemically resemble ceramides, lipid molecules that maintain the barrier function of the skin. (You’ll find ceramides in popular over-the-counter skin care products such as CeraVe.)
But ceramides are problematic, Dr. Arbiser says. They can be converted into sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P), a compound that promotes inflammation.
Dr. Arbiser and his team set out to create two solenopsin analogs from fire ant venom that resemble ceramides but won’t convert into S1P. Researchers tested a 1 percent solenopsin skin cream on mice with psoriasis-like lesions for 28 days.
Dr. Arbiser said he was pleasantly surprised by how well the fire ant venom solenopsin analogs worked.
In addition to the 30 percent reduction in skin thickness, Dr. Arbiser also saw around 50 percent fewer immune cells infiltrating the skin in the treated mice models, compared with the control group.
Translation: The fire ant venom compound doesn’t just soothe the skin; it’s restoring the skin’s barrier function, too. And because it is a topical treatment, there’s little risk of toxicity.
That’s good news for people with mild to moderate psoriasis, says Dr. Arbiser. “Most people don’t have really bad psoriasis. This offers a potential new treatment that doesn’t have the side effects of topical steroids.”
Dr. Arbiser is in the process of patenting the solenopsin derivatives and is shopping around for companies to license his products.
As for Charlotte’s run-in with fire ants, Dr. Arbiser says, “Those experiences inform us. I would caution people with psoriasis not to go out and step on fire ants, though.”
Charlotte agrees. “The pain was horrific. I definitely would be up to try the cream, but I would not recommend that people get bitten by fire ants! It’s extremely painful, and I don’t wish that on anyone.”
To learn more about Charlotte’s Mount Kilimanjaro trek, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Casey Nilsson writes about psoriasis and autoimmune diseases for HealthCentral. Casey is an award-winning magazine writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. She’s a 2017 Association of Health Care Journalists fellow and her story on unfair labor conditions for people with disabilities was a finalist for the 2016 City and Regional Magazine Association Awards. Follow her on Twitter @casey_nilsson.