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How a Stinging Swarm of Bees Can Save a Life

Bee venom might be a potent medicine

(Jebb Harris/ZUMA Press/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When Ellie Lobel was two, a bee sting sent her body into anaphylaxis—immune system-induced overdrive . She stopped breathing and nearly died. When she was 45, she was attacked by a swarm of Africanized bees. Not only did she survive but her life changed, drastically, for the better, reports Chistie Wilcox for Mosaic (via Medium). For years Lobel had battled Lyme disease, but after several days of pain following the swarm she recalls, "My brain just came right out of that fog. I thought: I can actually think clearly for the first time in years.”

Lobel and her doctors aren’t sure exactly what happened to alleviate the body pains, neurological symptoms and fatigue induced by infection with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that had entered her body through the bite of a tick when she was 27. But Lobel thinks it was bee venom.

Poisons pulled from the stingers, sacs and tentacles of many venomous animals have been used in medicine for many years. "Bee venom has been used as a treatment in East Asia since at least the second century BCE," Wilcox writes. "In Chinese traditional medicine, scorpion venom is recognised as a powerful medicine, used to treat everything from eczema to epilepsy."

The chemistry that makes these compounds harmful can also offer protection. “Over millions of years, these little chemical engineers have developed a diversity of molecules that target different parts of our nervous system,” Ken Winkel, Director of the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne, told Mosaic. “This idea of applying these potent nerve toxins to somehow interrupt a nervous disease has been there for a long time. But we haven’t known enough to safely and effectively do that.”

Bee venom’s active compound is called melittin, a small peptide that causes the sensation of burning pain. It triggers heat sensors in nerve cells to think they are literally on fire. But as with all poison, the dose is important. Wilcox writes that at higher doses melittin creates holes in the membrane surrounding cells and cause them to "swell up and pop like a balloon." Scientists are actually hoping to harness this ability. Wilcox reports:

For example, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, have found that melittin can tear open HIV’s protective cell membrane without harming human cells. This envelope-busting method also stops the virus from having a chance to evolve resistance. “We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” Joshua L Hood, the lead author of the study, said in a press statement. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to that. The virus has to have a protective coat.” Initially envisioned as a prophylactic vaginal gel, the hope is that melittin-loaded nanoparticles could someday be injected into the bloodstream, clearing the infection.

Research into bee venom is relatively new, and scientists have a lot to learn. Still, the potency of these compounds holds promise.

The melittin from the bees that stung Lobel may have killed off the bacteria plaguing her. For years after the attack, she self-administered bee stings, until after three years, her recovery seemed complete. Now she runs a business selling beauty products that contain a little bit of bee venom. Apparently one side effect of her bee-sting treatment was beautiful-looking skin.

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