Scorpion venom might be the answer to treating arthritis - here's how it works

Scorpion venom could be used to manage arthritis symptoms in the future, according to new research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Scientists suggest that a protein present in scorpion venom could help alleviate the harmful side effects of steroids used to treat arthritis.

Testing on mice, US researchers found this protein rapidly accumulates in joint cartilages, including the knees, ankles, hips, shoulders and spinal discs. They combined these proteins, known as cystine-dense peptides (CDPs), with a steroid normally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis to create a ‘drug delivery system’ that targeted only the joints and not the rest of the body.

They found that this method reversed joint inflammation in the rodents, while avoiding steroid exposure to other parts of the body.

A 'safer way' to treat arthritis

The team hope that the findings will help a lot of people, providing a 'safer way' to treat the some 10 million sufferers of arthritic diseases in the UK, and 54 million in the US.

While steroids are used to treat inflammation that causes arthritis, they come with dangerous side effects, including weakening of the bones, high blood pressure and increased risk of infections, which is why they cannot be administered for long periods of time.

Dr Jim Olson, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, US, and the senior scientist in the project, said, “For people with multi-joint arthritis, the side effects of controlling the disease can be as bad or worse than the disease itself.

“Steroids like to go everywhere in the body except where they’re needed most. This is a strategy to improve arthritis relief with minimal systemic side effects.”

The researchers looked at cystine-dense peptides (CDPs), a chemically diverse family of proteins found in the venom of scorpions, spiders and snakes.

Treatment reversed inflammation in the joints without damaging tissue

After analysing 42 CDPs from 20 species, they identified one candidate that accumulated within cartilage tissue in rodents.

The scientists then attached these proteins to triamcinolone acetonide, a steroid treatment for arthritis, and found that it helped concentrate the steroid drug within the cartilage of joints in rats with rheumatoid arthritis.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the body's immune system targets affected joints, which leads to pain and swelling.

The treatment was found to reverse inflammation in the joints without damaging tissues in the thymus and spleen, the two organs often affected by repeated steroid treatments.

Researchers say further studies are required to assess the safety of this drug delivery method in animals over longer periods of time before moving on to human clinical trials.

Emily Girard, staff scientist in Dr Olson’s laboratory and one of the study’s lead authors, said, "There is more development to be done, but I hope that this work results in a therapeutic that will help a lot of people."