A jab made from bee venom could help millions of arthritis sufferers.
Scientists have developed tiny nanoparticles that can be injected straight into painful knees, using a peptide found in the insects’ poison.
The peptide, called melittin, has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect that halts the destruction of cartilage, the body’s built-in ‘shock absorber’.
New jab: Bee venom is an ancient remedy long known to have anti-inflammatory effects
Experts who tested the jab on mice think the sooner it is given after a sporting injury or accident, the less likely it is the joint will later be affected by osteoarthritis.
But they are also hopeful the bee venom particles will help those who have suffered the painful condition for years.
An estimated nine million people in Britain have some degree of osteoarthritis.
As the body ages, major joints like the hips, knees and wrists suffer wear and tear. But other risk factors include being overweight, having a family history of the condition and suffering sports-related injuries.
Cartilage soaks up the impact from walking, running or lifting, so that bones do not rub together and disintegrate.
But in osteoarthritis, the cartilage starts to break down and as bones come into contact, the friction makes joints swollen and extremely painful.
There are no drugs to cure it and many sufferers rely on anti-inflammatory painkillers to ease their suffering.
While these help, they can damage the stomach if used for long periods of time.
More extreme treatments include steroid injections, to dampen down inflammation.
But around 100,000 people a year in the UK end up having knee replacement surgery because their joints are too badly eroded.
Bright idea: The latest breakthrough, by scientists from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis (pictured), could transform treatment
Bee venom is an ancient remedy long known to have anti-inflammatory effects.
But previous attempts to make it into a safe and effective treatment for osteoarthritis have had little success.
This is partly because drugs containing the active peptide tend to get carried around the bloodstream, rather than directed at the damaged joint.
Meanwhile, injecting the pure venom itself can trigger potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.
But the latest breakthrough, by scientists from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, US, could transform treatment.
They developed tiny particles, each one containing a minute amount of melittin, too small to be seen with the naked eye.
Because the particles are so small, once they are injected into the knee they are more likely to find their way into damaged tissue.
The results of their tests on mice, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed the bee venom jabs rapidly dampened down the inflammation which damages cartilage.
They compared the results with steroid injections, which can have a similar effect.
But while steroids stopped working after a few hours, the nanoparticles were still having an effect several weeks later.
The bee venom peptide is thought to work by activating a molecule in the body called small interfering RNA, or siRNA.
This is known to interfere with the inflammatory reaction inside joints that leads to osteoarthritis.
Professor Samuel Wickline, who helped develop the jab, said: ‘The nanoparticles were injected shortly after injury, to prevent cartilage breakdown.
‘The findings suggest they could prevent the progression to osteoarthritis.
‘But we think they may also be helpful in patients who already have arthritis and we developing experiments to test that idea.’
Natalie Carter, head of research liaison at Arthritis Research UK, said: ‘We know injury to a joint is a high risk factor for developing osteoarthritis and there is currently no cure.
‘Melittin has shown promising anti-inflammatory effects in cells grown in the lab.
‘But because it is derived from bee venom, there is the potential adverse effect of allergic reactions.
‘It’s also not yet clear whether these nanoparticles will be effective once osteoarthritis has developed in the joint.’