The Buzz About Bee Venom Therapy for MS
Published on: April 8, 2004
By Christine Haran
Bees are creatures that people usually work fairly hard to avoid. Despite their small size, these fuzzy flying insects can cause considerable pain with their stingers—and occasionally severe allergic reactions. But many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) have taken an interest in bee venom, and some even arrange to be stung in an effort to treat their symptoms.
People who practice apitherapy, or the medical use of honeybee products, believe that bee venom can be used to treat MS, as well as arthritis, inflammation from injuries and other conditions. Its popularity has led to the proliferation of journals devoted to bee venom, alternative medicine practioners and beekeepers offering bee venom injections or simply a hive of bees, and companies selling bee venom products. Yet little research has been conducted in the United States, and experts caution that its safety and effectiveness have not been established.
Joseph A. Bellanti, MD, a professor of pediatrics and microbiology-immunology and director of the International Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, has just concluded the first Phase I study of the safety of honey-bee venom extract as a possible treatment for patients with progressive forms of multiple sclerosis. Below, Dr. Bellanti discusses the future of bee venom therapy for this debilitating autoimmune disorder.
Do you know where the idea of using bee venom as a therapy came from?
Why you did you decide to study bee venom extract in people with MS?
What did your study involve?
One of the entry criteria was that the diagnosis be primary or secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. There are various types of multiple sclerosis, some of which occur in peaks and waves, and others that have a steadier progressive course. The reason that we chose the stable progressive patients was to try to eliminate the variations in disease expression that could be unrelated to the treatment. Another requirement was that they not be receiving any other immunomodulatory treatment such as steroids or interferon.
The patients were given a diary card to record any symptoms experienced, the dates of the onset of these symptoms and any other pertinent information. We also performed blood counts, urinalyses and chemical tests, to make sure that there were no adverse effects that were resulting from the treatment.
We ended the study with nine patients, among whom the mean age was about 45 years of age and the mean duration of the disease was about 14 years. It was a safety study, primarily, and our one-year results indicated that there were no serious adverse effects observed during the study. There were some minor localized reactions because the injections were given at multiple injection sites twice a week.
Four patients had to drop out of the study because of exacerbations of their disease or because of possible progression of the disease. We didn’t think that this was related to the bee venom but, to be on the safe side, we discontinued their treatment at the first sign of neurological worsening. Three of the remaining five improved, which would be 60 percent, but the numbers are too small to draw any definitive conclusions about whether this is an effective treatment. We certainly would not recommend this as a form of treatment yet, but it’s an encouraging study and it opens up the possibility for some additional studies that could be performed at multiple centers.
What symptoms were relieved?
How might bee venom improve MS symptoms?
Why this happens we’re not entirely sure, but it appears to be related to a viral infection, and in a genetically susceptible host, his or her immune response is being directed against their own tissues; in this case, against the nerves. If this treatment works, it is somehow preventing that attack. One of the proteins in bee venom has been shown to increase nerve conduction velocity, and this could be how it works.
Why is it dangerous to receive bee venom therapy outside of a controlled study?
But even with this type of study, there is a potential danger whenever you administer a protein such as venom extract to a patient. Allergists treat patients with allergic disease with extracts all the time. They safeguard against any adverse reactions by using very small doses and then gradually increasing them and watching the patient very carefully after every injection for a period of about 20 or 30 minutes. The one danger that we worry about most is an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, in which there is a swelling of the tissues. Swelling could lead to low blood pressure, respiratory failure and shock . Fortunately, we didn’t encounter this, but there is that potential danger.
What is your advice to people with MS who are interested in bee venom therapy?
Our hope is that we can continue to do research at academic centers exploring these new techniques and new procedures. But these studies should be done, as best we can, using the scientific method of carefully conducting careful research, where we can draw proper conclusions.