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Summary touts scorpion venom for rheumatoid arthritis. Yes, if you’re a rat

Scorpion venom component can reduce severity of rheumatoid arthritis

Our Review Summary

This news release reports on a study that found a component of scorpion venom — called iberiotoxin — reduced the severity of rheumatoid arthritis in rats without producing adverse effects associated a with a similar treatment. The study was published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. The release’s strong suits were its descriptions of why the research is novel and how the substance works by blocking a potassium channel on cells associated with the disease. The news release would have been stronger with more information on the limitations of the research and potential harms, as well as a less misleading headline. The release at a minimum should have added ‘…in rats’ to the headline.

 

Why This Matters

Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.3 million people in the U.S., according to data cited by the American College of Rheumatology. It causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of joint function.

Better treatment options would be important news. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, biologics and steroids are available to arrest rheumatoid arthritis and help protect joints but they come with significant side effects and risk of infection. Anti-inflammatory medication, physical and occupational therapy, and exercise are also used to relieve symptoms.

The irony of potentially harnessing a natural poison to treat disease makes an enticing headline, but news releases should not exaggerate the state of the evidence. It also helps readers when news releases give some indication of the stage of the research.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There’s no discussion of how much a product like this might cost or how the cost might compare with other treatments. Peptides International (funders of the study) lists iberiotoxin at $295 per 0.1 ml vial on its website.  However, we’re never told how much toxin is used when applied as a treatment so it’s impossible to estimate what costs for a patient might run.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The news release says treatment with iberiotoxin “stopped the progression of the disease. In some cases they reversed the signs of established disease, meaning that the animals had better joint mobility and less inflammation in their joints.”

There’s no data to quantify the amount of improvement that was observed. The abstract of the study also lacked any information about the degree of the improvement in rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

The main point readers should keep in mind is that  this is an early animal study and it would be inappropriate to make projections about its usefulness in humans.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The news release reported that treatment of rats with iberiotoxin “did not induce side effects, such as tremors and incontinence, observed when treating with another channel blocker called paxilline.

That’s not quite right. The study itself says it only examined tremors and incontinence, and other adverse effects couldn’t be ruled out.

Also, just because a particular adverse effect wasn’t observed in rats doesn’t mean it is safe for humans.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The news release offers this researcher’s quote: “Although these results are promising, much more research needs to be conducted before we can use scorpion venom components to treat rheumatoid arthritis.”

That’s important, but the news release would have been stronger with more specifics on the size and length of the trial, and a strong caution about the fact that animal studies rarely translate into successful human treatments.

Also, the study said that the treated rats still “exhibited a significant amount of paw inflammation,” suggesting that a potential treatment, if developed, might have to be used in tandem with another treatment for inflammation.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There’s no disease-mongering but the news release cuts corners when offering context about the  impact of rheumatoid arthritis. It mentions “1.3 million people with rheumatoid arthritis,” but doesn’t say where that number comes from or whether it’s a U.S. or worldwide figure.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The news release reports that the study was supported by Peptide International, makers of the peptide iberiotoxin, the Arthritis Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. We didn’t find any undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The news release does the bare minimum here, stating, “Current treatments target the immune cells involved in the disease and none are specific for FLS.”

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The news release makes it clear that scorpion venom isn’t available yet as a treatment with this researcher’s quote: “We think that this venom component, iberiotoxin, can become the basis for developing a new treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in the future.” But since the drug is available through Peptide International it is possible that some people may try to get it from the company and try it.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The news release does a good job here, stating in the first paragraph that “one of the hundreds of components in scorpion venom can reduce the severity of the disease in animal models, without inducing side effects associated with similar treatments.”

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

The headline overreaches when it wrongly declares that scorpion venom “can reduce severity of rheumatoid arthritis” without alluding to the lack of testing in humans.  It would have been better if it included “in rats” in the title.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory

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