Using ant venom, Emory and Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) researchers have discovered a potential treatment for psoriasis, a common autoimmune skin disease.

Fire ant venom contains solenopsin, an organic compound that inflicts pain when humans are bitten, according to School of Medicine Professor of Dermatology Jack Arbiser. However, solenopsin also has properties similar to ceramide molecules, which provide the healthy barrier functions of the skin, said Shikha Rao, a postdoctoral fellow in Emory’s School of Medicine who collaborated with Arbiser on the project.

Arbiser’s team developed an analog compound resembling natural ceramide molecules of fire ant venom, Rao said. The compound may be able to reduce skin irritation caused by psoriasis, according to Nicole Ward, an associate professor of dermatology at Case Western who collaborated with Arbiser.

Psoriasis occurs when skin cells grow too rapidly, causing skin to become thick, red and scaly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The condition can lead to psoriatic arthritis, which is found in 10 to 20 percent of psoriasis patients. Psoriasis currently affects 2.5 to 6 million patients in the United States, according to Arbiser’s study.

Existing treatments and topical steroid creams for psoriasis cause side effects, such as increased susceptibility to bruising and thinning of skin, Ward said. Patients can also develop resistances to the creams after long-term use, according to the study.

“It’s really a surprising result,” Arbiser said of the study. “Who would think ant venom could do anything good? I always say, ‘God is a better chemist than we are.’”

Arbiser and his team developed the ceramide analog compound in 2012 and 2013. They then sent the compound to Ward and her team at Case Western, who work with mice genetically programmed to develop psoriasis. Undergraduate students at Case Western began testing the compound on mice by applying it to their skin twice a day for 28 days, Ward said.

The compound decreases cellular production of the interleukin (IL)-22 protein, which causes inflammation, according to the study. It also increased production of IL-12, an anti-inflammatory protein.

Mice treated with the solenopsin compound had a 30 percent reduction in skin thickness when compared with mice not treated by the compound, the study showed.

Ward and Rao said they believe that the treatment could also lead to treatments for other skin conditions with similar inflammations.