Fire ant venom to combat thick skin

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Immune system

Researchers say compounds from fire ant venom could be used to develop psoriasis treatments which limit skin-thickening side effects.

The primary toxic components of fire ant venom are known as solenopsins, which resemble the lipid-like ceramide molecules that are essential for maintaining the barrier function of the skin.

According to the research, mice treated with solenopsin analogs displayed decreases in skin thickness and had fewer immune cells infiltrating the skin.

“We believe that solenopsin analogs are contributing to full restoration of the barrier function in the skin,” ​said Emory University School of Medicine’s Jack Arbiser.

“Emollients ​[non-cosmetic moisturisers] can soothe the skin in psoriasis, but they are not sufficient for restoration of the barrier,” ​he added.

Combination treatments​ 

The researcher also investigated how gene activity patterns were altered in the skins of the mice post-treatment, discovering that solenopsin analog application turned down genes that were turned up by alternative steroid and ultraviolet light-based treatments.

“This may be compensatory and a mechanism of resistance to anti-psoriasis therapy, and it suggests that the solenopsin compounds could be used in combination with existing approaches,” ​said Arbiser.


University spokesperson Quinn Eastman told us topical steroids – which are the most frequently used treatments for mild to moderate psoriasis – can have negative side effects.

“While effective, resistance is observed and skin thinning is a well-known side effect,” ​said Eastman.

However, scientists at Emory University say compounds derived from the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis Invicta)​ can reduce skin thickening and inflammation in mice with the autoimmune skin disease.

Other treatment options, including biological agents which combat inflammation, are expensive said Eastman.

“Biological agents against inflammatory molecules (TNF, IL23, IL17) are used for severe psoriasis but they are expensive, may suppress the immune system and are more difficult to administer.”

Venom extraction

Eastman told us that while large-scale extraction​ is not possible, researchers have developed an affordable, small-scale extraction method.

“Large-scale extraction of solenopsin from fire ants is not feasible, and current synthetic routes are multistep routes with low yields.” 

“Thus, we devised a simple two-step synthesis of solenopsin analogs starting from inexpensive dimethyl pyridine,” ​said Eastman.

The University plans to license out this technology.

Related topics Bio Developments Biopharma Culture

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