One of the key culprits behind the painful sting of a fire ant could prove to be a key component in new creams to treat psoriasis, an auto-immune skin disease characterized by thickened red and itchy patches for which there is currently no cure. New research has found that a key compound in the creature's toxic venom can combat some of the symptoms of psoriasis by helping to repair the barrier function of the skin.

The venomous compound in question is called solenopsin, and the reason it has this team of scientists rather excited is its resemblance to something called ceramides. These naturally occurring lipids play a key role in the epidermis, supporting its barrier function by retaining moisture and holding healthy cells together. For this reason it can also be found in many skincare products.

But according to Jack Arbiser, professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine, ceramides do have their downsides, because under certain conditions they are converted into an inflammatory molecule called sphingosine-1-phosphate. So he and fellow researchers from Case Western University got to work developing solenopsin analogs that function just like ceramides, but can't be degraded into S1P. These were then worked into a skin cream and applied to a mouse model of psoriasis for a period of 28 days.

The team found that the cream containing the solenopsin analogs seemed to prevent some key symptoms of psoriasis, with mice displaying a roughly 30 percent decrease in skin thickness compared to a control group. Those mice also had around 50 percent fewer immune cells invade the skin, and when the team applied the compounds to immune cells in culture, it reduced the production of inflammatory cells while boosting the production of anti-inflammatory cells. Some of the gene activity that is heightened by current treatments was also dampened by the solenopsin analogs.

"We believe that solenopsin analogs are contributing to full restoration of the barrier function in the skin," Arbiser says. "Emollients can soothe the skin in psoriasis, but they are not sufficient for restoration of the barrier."

Rather than serving as its own standalone treatment, the team believes with further work the solenopsin analogs could be used in combination with existing treatments for psoriasis.

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.