By Jenny Geyer
For centuries, civilizations around the world have used the venom from a variety of creatures for both medicinal and cosmetic purposes, but it wasn’t until recently that modern medicine chose to give these substances a closer look.
Bee venom (apitoxim) specifically has received much acclaim in the past few decades by proponents of alternative medicine who have evangelized its healing properties and bee products in general (i.e., honey, propolis, royal jelly, and pollen). There are hundreds of anecdotal accounts from those claiming to have been successfully treated for a range of ailments. Of the various kinds of apitherapies, the most controversial perhaps is bee venom therapy (BVT). In BVT, patients self-administer bee venom either through stings from live bees or by injection.
Despite growing enthusiasm for BVT, there has been little scientific evidence found thus far to support the positive results many claim to have yielded through apitherapy, and there remains a general dismissal among doctors and scientists who tend to attribute these individual success stories to the placebo effect. Still, for many years it has been a popular alternative to the more commonly prescribed drugs used by patients to relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), which sparked enough curiosity in the scientific community to result in a 2005 study at Georgetown University. In this phase 1 study funded by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, researchers sought to investigate and measure the effectiveness of BVT in the treatment of MS. After only a year, the results were published; but the findings were inconclusive, as there were only nine participants. Perhaps even more discouraging is that the results of a separate crossover study on 26 MS patients published the same year found BVT to be ineffective in improving any of the symptoms caused by the disease.
Fortunately, the investigation of bee venom and its uses for other ailments seems to have found some momentum, and researchers are exploring its potential in the development of treatments for everything from arthritis to cancer—and even as a means to inhibit the infectivity of HIV. The principal active peptide found in the honeybee’s toxic cocktail, called melittin, is a powerful antimicrobial that’s proven to be especially useful against Borrelia (a strain of bacteria known to cause Lyme disease), and has also been found to possibly serve an important broader function in bio research.
Research on peptides found in the venom of other kinds of animals, including snakes, insects, and spiders has been gaining traction too, and have been the source of many new drug discoveries, including Captopril, Baltrodibin, and Byetta. In fact, there was even a session devoted to discussing recent research initiatives in the area of pharmaceutical applications of venoms and natural toxins at the 2015 AAPS National Biotechnology Conference in San Francisco.
As one might imagine, a major concern in this area of research is the potency level of some of these natural toxins and venoms and how to wield them to create pharmaceuticals safe for the market. While it’s clear that more extensive, ongoing research is needed before we understand how to optimize these powerful and complex compounds, it is likely that researchers will continue to uncover the wealth of possibility they hold for future of drug discovery.
Of course, the future of venom research is entirely dependent on our own conservation efforts. It has become an increasingly dire situation for bees, and for many other species that we rely on for all kinds of research advancements—not to mention agriculture. Fortunately, President Obama’s administration has recognized this crisis and implemented the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators as a research funding and advocacy initiative to help save these critical creatures. Considering how important bees are to our survival, it’s crucial that everyone do their part to support the bees and their survival.
Not sure how to help? Thankfully, organizations like The Pollinator Partnership, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and The National Resources Defense Council are making major strides to help save the bees, and they could use your support. But donations aren’t the only way to show your support. Many of these organizations have helpful tips on their websites to teach us how we can all pitch in to create a more sustainable and welcoming environment for bees—starting in your own backyard!