Written by Dao Le
Insect venom is typically (and rightfully) associated with danger. Approximately 90-100 people per year in the United States die due to allergic reactions from insect venom . But how many will have their lives prolonged as a result of the therapeutic uses of this same venom? Ever since ancient Greek and Egyptian civilization, bee venom has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from autoimmune diseases to neurodegenerative conditions . In Korea, two commonly prescribed medications are a centipede-derived medicine for arthritis and silk moth fungus for strokes . Many research laboratories in the West are just beginning to study venom therapy, and there is much to learn from these ancient civilizations and eastern cultures. Venom therapy serves as a source of hope, especially for those suffering from neurodegenerative disorders.
Much recent research has been centered on venom as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease, which is the second most common neurodegenerative condition after Alzheimer’s disease. Parkinson’s is caused by the gradual decay of brain cells that release and transmit the chemical dopamine. One of dopamine’s many functions is coordinating muscle movement. This explains why Parkinson’s patients typically suffer from tremors, stiff limbs, and other symptoms associated with inability to control muscles . Medications, like L-dopa, that are used to compensate for the low levels of dopamine in Parkinson’s patients usually have three main side effects: increased physical dependence on the drug, severe drowsiness, and impaired voluntary movement. Other possible side effects include hallucinations and compulsions, or repetitive behaviors that interfere with a patient’s quality of life . L-dopa has numerous side effects, with some that may even be as debilitating as Parkinson’s itself.
There is now higher demand to develop a medication with insect venom to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s without the adverse effects of L-dopa. In 2014, a collaboration between the cell biology, pharmacology, and narcotics departments at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt revealed that bee venom decreased the death rate of dopamine-producing brain cells and normalized brain chemistry in Parkinson’s disease mouse models . Additionally, bee venom, when applied under the skin, was not shown to be harmful to rodent models even when it was administered in larger concentrations than the amount that neurodegenerative therapy typically requires; this contrasts with its detrimental effects when applied on or near the surface of the skin . The activity of bee venom in the brain is distinct from the behavior of L-dopa in the brain. Rather than increasing the survival rate of dopamine-producing brain cells, L-dopa increases the concentration of dopamine itself, altering brain chemistry . This may possibly explain the drug’s extreme side effects after extensive use. Because it has minimal known side effects, bee venom could potentially be a safer alternative to treating Parkinson’s .
There is much to look forward to when it comes to venom therapy. However, it’s a long road ahead. Drug and therapy development, human clinical trials, FDA approval, and Western skepticism are only a few of the hurdles that venom therapy will need to overcome. Nevertheless, new findings are coming along steadily in this field. Modern interest in venom therapy demonstrates the wisdom and advanced nature of ancient civilizations. Thousands of years ago, ancients harnessed the power of deadly insect venom for their own benefit. It is now up to present-day scientists to do the same.