People who suffer from atopic dermatitis – a common form of eczema – might one day find relief in a treatment based on the compound that makes bee stings painful.
The protein melittin, which is found in bee venom, has been shown to suppress the immune response responsible for the uncomfortable skin condition that affects as many as 1 in 5 children and 3 percent of adults worldwide.
Researchers from Australia and South Korea have not only shown the potential merits of the compound as an eczema treatment, they've identified the precise mechanisms responsible behind its anti-inflammatory action.
We've known for some time that most cases of eczema are fundamentally caused by the lack of a protein called filaggrin.
Only recently have researchers begun to understand how this absence causes skin cells to pile up instead of shedding, interfering with the skin's ability to keep fluids in and invaders out.
This not only puts those with the condition at risk of infection and growing the wrong kinds of microflora, it makes it much easier for allergens to kick off immune responses, leading to uncomfortable itching and irritation that begs for a good scratching.
While we're still some way off a cure, researchers are nevertheless keen to find more efficient ways to ease the suffering without side effects.
Bee venom might seem like an odd place to hunt for compounds that might ease inflammation. But previous research suggests its main ingredient could provide a wide range of therapeutic benefits, from a role in pain relief to anti-cancer activity.
Considering melittin has a secondary role in honeybees as a pathogen-fighter, it might not really be all that surprising that it could become a useful pharmaceutical in managing immune responses in humans.
To dig into melittin's potential as an anti-inflammatory, the team divided a number of mice into nine groups, and used three of them to test various doses of melittin and bee venom on mice sensitised to have an atopic dermatitis-like skin condition.
The other groups of mice served as controls, so the team could compare their results with a placebo, and also test it on mice which hadn't been sensitised.
Similar tests were also carried out on human skin cell tissues, which were also dosed with increasing amounts of melittin.
In both models, bee venom – in particular, melittin – effectively reduced the inflammation responsible for much of the discomfort caused by this skin condition, indicating it could be a good candidate for a topical treatment.
An analysis of the biochemical and cellular changes in the human and mouse tissues suggests just how the protein might manage this by blocking the expression of chemical messengers called cytokines.
This process interferes with a cascade of steps that send immune cells charging, ultimately turning dry, cracked skin into a puffy lump. While a medication based on melittin won't cure atopic dermatitis, it could provide side-effect-free relief that would prevent fingernails from digging in and making it worse.
Bee venom isn't the only insect toxin that could be used to treat skin conditions. Last year, researchers investigated the venom of fire ants for its potential in reducing the skin build-up responsible for psoriasis.
Nature is positively humming with chemistry that could heal as easily as it harms, given the right conditions.
We certainly don't advocate DIY bee-sting treatments.
But with some solid clinical research, it just might be possible that those with skin conditions like eczema might soon find relief in this formidable insect weapon.
This research was published in British Journal of Pharmacology.