Although bee venom has been touted for years as an analgesic for arthritis sufferers, a study reveals how it works in some people.
In animal studies, doctors in South Korea found that melirtin, the principal peptide in bee venom, blocks the expression of inflammatory genes that cause painful tissue swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
The researchers first treated rats to induce inflammatory arthritis. The rats who had advanced rheumatoid arthritis were given low doses of bee venom, which dramatically reduced tissue swelling and abnormal bony growths caused by the disease.
Then the researchers examined the antiinflammatory effects of melittin on synovial cells of arthritis patients. Synovial cells are those that line the joints and are vulnerable to inflammation.
The researchers found that melittin blocked the expression of the genes that cause the inflammation. Melittin works in a similar way to Cox-2 inhibitors, which were once commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and reduce inflammation, the scientists explain.
They also note that melittin reduced the amount of nitric oxide in synovial cells. This is important because there is evidence that tissues affected by inflammatory arthritis produce large amounts of nitric oxide.
"Although further study is needed for determination of an effective dose, our data show that the anti-arthritic effects of bee venom are related to its anti-inflammatory effects," the authors conclude.
Raymond Dingledine, chairman of the department of pharmacology at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, calls the Korean findings "interesting.”
"The authors are claiming that bee venom actually causes a reduction in inflammatory response, which is counterintuitive, because a bee sting causes severe local inflammation, with swelling and edema," he says.
Although bee venom has been used as a folk remedy for arthritis for a long time, some scientists believed it wasn't the bee venom itself that offered pain relief, but the cortisone produced by the body after being stung. They thought it was the cortisone that fought the local inflammation as well as the swelling of tissues affected by arthritis.
But Dingledine says there haven't been controlled clinical trials to determine whether bee venom is indeed useful, partly because bee stings "hurt like crazy" and such a study would have to create a placebo that would be equally painful.
"There are people for whom standard treatments don't work, and this is a new idea for how bee venom might have anti-inflammatory advantages," he says. Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis include medication, diet, exercise and surgery