The Problem with Bee Venom Therapy

[♪ INTRO] Everyone knows that bee stings don’t feel
the best. And for the 1-7% of us with allergies to insect
venom, they can be deadly. But a growing number of people are choosing
to inject themselves with the toxic stuff, or even receive intentional stings, in the hopes of finding relief from
conditions like arthritis and chronic pain. It’s incredibly controversial, and risky,
but clinical studies have found some evidence backing bee venom therapy:
the medical use of bee venom. And further research into why it seems to
help could lead to breakthroughs for diseases we don’t currently have good ways to treat. The medicinal use of bees, or apitherapy,
has been around for ages. The Greek physician Hippocrates was doling
out stings as treatment as far back as 460 BCE. Then again, he also thought that if a
woman didn’t have sex with a man or give birth for a while, her uterus
would start wandering around her body and cause a bunch of health problems. So that’s not saying much. Today, apitherapy is mostly popular among
people who believe in alternative medicine. But it’s also started to get some attention
from evidence-based medicine, because clinical research has
backed some therapeutic claims. Venom is typically collected from bees
and then delivered through acupuncture. Small amounts of a diluted toxin mixture,
equivalent to one thousandth of a sting or less, are pricked right into
the skin with each needle. But some opt for a more natural route. Yes, that means live bees delivering real
stings. Either way, the venom usually comes from honey
bees, and it contains dozens of potent compounds, though a small protein called melittin is
the most abundant. Combined with the rest of the chemical cocktail,
it produces the burning pain and itching associated with stings as well as the hot, red lump
that continues to throb for hours. So it might seem weird to think that the venom
from a sting, which we typically associate with pain and swelling, might reduce things like pain and swelling. But that’s exactly what researchers have found. Bee venom seems to be most
effective for inflammatory diseases: conditions where excess inflammation
is a major part of the problem. Inflammation is one of the
body’s immune responses. It’s what causes infections or injuries
to become red, warm, and puffy. But when there’s too much, or it occurs
in response to the wrong things, you can end up with chronic problems. And weirdly enough, studies have
shown that both whole bee venom and melittin alone can reduce
inflammation from other sources. Melittin, for example, directly binds
with key molecules that activate pro-inflammatory genes, blocking
them from binding to DNA. And in some studies, this seems
to translate to results in humans. A handful of papers have shown that bee
venom therapy can help with the painful, swollen joints that characterize
arthritis, for example. A randomized controlled trial in Korea in 2003 found that the 37 patients who
received bee venom acupuncture had less stiffness and pain
in the affected joints than the 32 controls that
received saline instead. That lines up with what studies in animal
models of the condition have found. A few studies have also found that bee
venom therapy reduced chronic pain, which is often due to inflammation. Not in the short term, because
a sting is still, well, stingy. But in a study of 54 patients with chronic
lower back pain published in 2017, those treated with bee venom
acupuncture reported more improvement than those who received saline, similar results to a 2006 trial of
30 patients with shoulder pain. Some research has found that bee venom might
even help treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, where inflammation in
the brain harms and eventually kills neurons. But a clinical trial of 73
patients published in early 2018 found that the symptoms of those receiving
bee venom acupuncture had improved: they had a better walking gait, postural stability, and quality of life over those
who received saline instead. It could be that the venom actually protected
their neurons by reducing the dangerous inflammation, something seen in animal models of the disease. But while all these examples are promising, many doctors aren’t ready
to embrace bee stings just yet. Because the results of individual small trials
aren’t enough to say if a treatment works. You have to look at the research as a whole. Review papers published in 2008 and 2014 analyzed the results of previous studies on bee
venom therapy for pain and arthritis, respectively. And both concluded that when
you look at all the studies on this, there’s not enough evidence
to say if venom is effective because the trials to date were
too small or had other flaws. Plus, attempts to use venom for other
conditions have not had such great results. For example, a 2005 trial in 26
patients with multiple sclerosis, a disease where chronic inflammation
slowly causes nerve damage, found that bee venom did nothing
for the patients that received it. And while the evidence in support of bee
venom therapy remains somewhat shaky, its dangers are well established. There are dozens of side effects that come
along with injecting people with an insect venom, ranging from, oh I don’t know, pain,
and itching, to deadly allergic reactions. In a 2015 review and
meta-analysis of dozens of studies, researchers found that bee venom therapy
substantially increased the risk of a bad reaction to treatment,
which ranged from itching to death. In fact, of the 397 patients that received
bee venom across 20 clinical trials, 148 of them had adverse reactions. And these were patients who had initially
tested negative for venom allergies. So, even if bee venom therapy does work, the
benefits might not outweigh the risks. To make it a useful treatment, researchers
would need to figure out how to harness the therapeutic potential of venom
while reducing those risks. Part of the problem is that most
studies use whole bee venom and all of its allergy-inducing components when it’s likely only some or even one
compound is needed for the desired effect. In the meantime, the results of a few
small studies probably aren’t enough to justify jabbing venom-spiked
needles into your body. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! And if you want to learn
more about insect venom, you might like our episode on 8
of the most painful stinging insects. [♪ OUTRO]

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