Rats and scorpions may sound like the stuff of nightmares for some people, but a new study shows that scorpion venom may actually improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, at least in rats.

While studies that utilize rodents (“mice models”) don’t always translate to the human population, it’s nevertheless an interesting development in rheumatoid arthritis research.

No one knows what causes rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or how to cure it. But studies like this could potentially offer researchers some insight into how the disease behaves and, perhaps eventually, how best to treat it.

The study, published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, was led by Christine Beeton, PhD, an immunologist at Baylor College of Medicine, as well as other researchers.

The scientists said they essentially discovered that one of the hundreds of components in scorpion venom can reduce the severity of RA in these animal models, even reversing damage from the disease in some cases.

There were also fewer side effects than what typically results from other kinds of RA treatments.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease — one in which the immune system attacks its own body. In this case, it affects the joints,” Beeton said in a statement. “Cells called fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS) play a major role in the disease. As they grow and move from joint to joint, they secrete products that damage the joints and attract immune cells that cause inflammation and pain. As damage progresses, the joints become enlarged and are unable to move.

“In previous work, we identified a potassium channel on FLS of patients with rheumatoid arthritis and found that the channel was very important for the development of the disease,” Beeton added. “We wanted to find a way to block the channel to stop the cells damaging the joints.”

Blocking channels

Potassium channels basically work by allowing potassium ion atoms to flow in and out of cells. This is vital for the cells to be able to carry out their essential functions.

Animals such as snakes and scorpions have venom that can block these channels and responses. This paralyzes and even kills their prey.

Due to the way venom works, scientists have long thought that it could also have medicinal purposes — such as treating RA.

The research team on this study found that one of the components in the venom of the scorpion specifically blocks the potassium channel of FLS and not the channels in other important cells.

This component is called iberiotoxin. The researchers wanted to see if iberiotoxin would be able to specifically block the FLS potassium channel and reduce severity of RA in the rats.

As researchers treated the rodents with iberiotoxin, they discovered they could stop the progression of the disease and, in some cases, even reverse the already established disease signs and symptoms.

In many cases, the treatment didn’t present serious side effects.

This study alone isn’t enough to promise a treatment or a cure will come out of it, but it is of interest to the team of researchers.

“Although these results are promising, much more research needs to be conducted before we can use scorpion venom components to treat rheumatoid arthritis,” Beeton said.

“We think that this venom component, iberiotoxin, can become the basis for developing a new treatment for RA in the future.”