Ant Venom Shows Promise for Psoriasis Treatment

A fire ant toxin may lead to new medications for psoriasis.

Compounds extracted from fire ant venom may reduce psoriasis symptoms, including skin thickening and inflammation, according to a new study published by Scientific Reports.

The novel findings may lead to a novel treatment for psoriasis, according to the study authors. Psoriasis is a very common autoimmune disease that affects millions of individuals each year. While patients are typically treated with topical steroids, biologic or systemic drugs, phototherapy and oral drugs are also an option. Unfortunately, topical steroids can lead to increased bruising and skin thinning in some patients, which may outweigh the benefits of treatment.

The authors report that a toxic component of fire ant venom, solenopsins, are similar to ceramides, which maintain the barrier of the skin and are found in many skin care products.

While ceramides can be beneficial, the lipid-like molecules can also be converted into an inflammatory molecule, sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P), according to the study.

In the study, the authors created 2 solenopsin analogs that resemble ceramides but do not degrade into S1P. The analogs were tested in mouse models of psoriasis for 28 days.

The researchers discovered that mice treated with the solenopsin analogs had 30% less skin thickness and 50% less inflammation compared with control mice, according to the study.

In cell cultures, the analogs were found to reduce the production of the inflammatory IL-22 and increased production of anti-inflammatory IL-12, suggesting an overall beneficial effect.

"We believe that solenopsin analogs are contributing to full restoration of the barrier function in the skin," said lead author Jack Arbiser, MD, PhD. "Emollients can soothe the skin in psoriasis, but they are not sufficient for restoration of the barrier."

The authors also examined changes in gene activity. After application of the solenopsin analogs, genes were turned down that are typically turned up by steroids and other psoriasis treatments.

"This may be compensatory and a mechanism of resistance to anti-psoriasis therapy, and it suggests that the solenopsin compounds could be used in combination with existing approaches," Dr Arbiser said.

The authors previously found that solenopsin inhibits blood vessel growth and may fight cancer. While systemic toxicity has not been explored, it would likely not be barred for use in skin conditions, as is the case for botulinum toxin, according to the study.

“Further studies of these analogs as anti-psoriatic drugs are warranted in humans,” the authors concluded.