An ingredient found in bee venom (search) may help take the sting out of rheumatoid arthritis (search).

Researchers say that holistic healers have used honeybee products for centuries in treating various ailments, and in the last few decades modern scientists have begun exploring the potential of bee venom for the treatment of diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease that causes pain and swelling in the joints. Over time the inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis destroys the tissues in the joints and can lead to disability.

In their study, researchers in South Korea found that bee venom dramatically reduced tissue swelling in rats bred to have an advanced form of rheumatoid arthritis.

A major ingredient in bee venom is melittin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. The study’s results indicate that melittin is likely responsible for the treatment’s success in fighting rheumatoid arthritis.

Bee Venom Reduces Swelling, Inflammation

In the study, which appears in the November issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism, researchers examined the effects of bee venom in rats with advanced rheumatoid arthritis.

They found very low doses of bee venom caused significant reductions in tissue swelling and inflammation, as well as decreased bone spur formation.

In a second test, researchers looked at the anti-inflammatory effects of melittin on samples of the cells that line the joints taken from people with rheumatoid arthritis. The active ingredient in the bee venom blocked genes that lead to the production of inflammatory substances.

Therefore, researchers suggest that the anti-inflammatory effects of melittin may be the key to the anti-rheumatoid arthritis effects long associated with bee venom.

Determining an effective dose needs further study, says researcher Jin Tae Hong, MD, PhD, of Chungbuk National University in South Korea, in a news release. But the potency of melittin in the inhibition of inflammation response may be of great benefit in degenerative and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, he notes.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Park, H. Arthritis & Rheumatism, November 2004; vol 50: pp 3504-3515. News release, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.