People with psoriasis – including scalp psoriasis – may soon be getting help from the unlikeliest of sources.
Psoriasis is a chronic, long-term condition whereby the skin’s cell turnover is quicker than normal. This causes dry, red, flaky patches of skin covered with silvery-white scales and can be extremely itchy.
According to new research from Emory University in Atlanta, a compound derived from fire ant venom may reduce skin thickening and inflammation. Successful tests already performed on mice have proved the theory.
Symptoms can often be eased through management using various forms of treatment and/or therapy, including when it affects the scalp. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatment would likely be administered both in a clinical and at-home setting, and could include nutrition and lifestyle changes in addition to medications and therapies. According to healthline.com, more than 50 per cent of people with psoriasis will develop scalp psoriasis.
Like Alopecia Areata, a disorder which leads to sudden hair loss – from scalp-only patchy bald spots to complete baldness of the head and body, psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder. Both issues are known to have stress-related triggers. Topical steroids are most commonly used to treat psoriasis, but their side effects include easy bruising and a thinning of the skin.
The researchers in Atlanta were already interested in the properties of fire ant venom, the main toxic components of which are called solenopsins, which had proven to be an inhibitor in blood vessel growth and that has potential as an anticancer agent. They had also observed that solenopsins chemically resemble ceramides – lipid-like molecules that are essential for maintaining the barrier function of the skin, and are found in many skin-care products.
Dermatology professor Jack Arbiser, MD, PhD, lead author of the study (DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-10580-y), says that ceramides can have a downside, however, pointing out that they can sometimes be converted by cells into S1P (sphingosine-1-phosphate), which is actually an inflammatory molecule.
According to the Amery University website, Arbiser and his colleagues devised two solenopsin analogs that look like ceramides, but which can’t be degraded into S1P. They then tested these in a mouse model of psoriasis, applying the compounds in a one percent skin cream for 28 days.
The results were remarkable: mice treated with solenopsin analogs displayed skin thickness decreases of around 30 per cent when compared to controls. They also had almost half the amount of immune cells infiltrating the skin than the control group. When applied to immune cells in culture, the compounds decreased the cells’ production of the inflammatory signal IL-22 and increased production of anti-inflammatory IL-12.
Body’s immune response
IL is an abbreviation of interleukin, a group of cytokines in the blood that play a large part in the body’s immune response. Importantly, these proteins are frequently mentioned in relation to Alopecia Areata, and doctors in Nice have suggested that low doses of the IL-2 protein could be beneficial to people with severe forms of the condition.
Meanwhile, the use of the interleukin IL-13 investigated during an American trial into a potential treatment for Alopecia Areata, doctors stated that: “Data shows that IL-13 is significantly unregulated in both atopic dermatitis and Alopecia Areata lesions compared to nonlesional skin. It is very important to associate the clinical responses with suppression of this cytokine and related molecules as well as other pathway cytokines in skin tissues.”
Says Emery’s Jack Arbiser: “We believe that solenopsin analogs are contributing to full restoration of the barrier function in the skin. Emollients can soothe the skin in psoriasis, but they are not sufficient for restoration of the barrier.”
The scientists also looked at how patterns of gene activity were changed in the skins of the mice after treatment. Solenopsin analogue application turned down genes that are turned up by current treatments such as steroids and ultraviolet light.
“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,” Arbiser says.
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