Ellie Lobel was 27 when she was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease. And she was not yet 45 when she decided to give up fighting for survival.
Caused by corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which enter the body through the bite of a tick, each year Lyme disease is diagnosed in around 329,000 people across 80 countries. It kills almost none of these people. If doctors correctly identify the cause of the illness early on, antibiotics can wipe out the bacteria quickly before they spread through the heart, joints and nervous system.
But in the spring of 1996, Ellie didn’t know to look for the characteristic bull’s-eye rash when she was bitten – she thought it was a spider bite. Then came three months of flu-like symptoms and horrible pains that moved around her body. Ellie was a fit, active woman with three kids, but her body did not know how to handle this new invader. She was incapacitated. “It was all I could do to get my head up off the pillow,” Ellie remembers.
Her first doctor told her it was a virus that would run its course. So did the next. Doctor after doctor gave her a different diagnosis. Multiple sclerosis. Lupus. Rheumatoid arthritis. Fibromyalgia. None of them realised she was infected with Borrelia until more than a year after she contracted the disease – and by then, it was too late. Lyme bacteria are exceptionally good at adapting, possibly capable of dodging both the immune system and antibiotics. And even with antibiotic treatment, ten to 20 per cent of patients don’t get better right away.
“I just kept doing this treatment and that treatment,” says Ellie. Her condition was worsening. She was stuck in bed or a wheelchair and couldn’t think clearly. Ellie kept fighting, with every antibiotic, every pharmaceutical, every holistic treatment she could find. “With some things I would get better for a little while, and then I would just relapse into this horrible Lyme nightmare. And with every relapse it got worse.”
After 15 years, she gave up.
“Doctors couldn’t help me,” she says. “When I got my last test results and all my counts were horrible,
I knew then that this was the end.
I didn’t care if I was going to see my next birthday.” So she packed up and moved to California to die. And she almost did.
Less than a week after moving, Ellie was attacked by a swarm of Africanised bees.
Ellie was in California for three days before the attack. “I wanted to get some fresh air and feel the sun on my face and hear the birds sing,” she recalls. “I knew that I was going to die in the next three or four months.”
At this point, Ellie was struggling to stand on her own. She had a caregiver to help her shuffle along the rural roads by her home in southern California, where she had chosen to die. She was just standing near a tree when the first bee appeared, she remembers, “just hitting me in the head. All of a sudden – boom! – bees everywhere.”
Her caregiver ran. But Ellie couldn’t run – she couldn’t even walk. “They were in my hair, all I heard was this crazy buzzing in my ears. I thought: I’m just going to die right here.”
Ellie, like one to seven per cent of the world’s population, is severely allergic to bees. When she was two, a sting sent her into anaphylaxis, a severe reaction of the body’s immune system. She nearly died. Her mother drilled a fear of bees into her to ensure she never ended up in the same dire situation again. So when the bees descended, Ellie was sure that this was the end, a few months earlier than expected.
Bee venom is a mixture of compounds, the most important being a tiny 26-amino-acid peptide called melittin. It is responsible for the burning pain associated with bee stings.
“I could feel the first five or ten or 15 but after that I just went limp,” says Ellie. “I put my hands up and covered my face because I didn’t want them stinging me in the eyes.”
When the bees finally dissipated, her caregiver tried to take her to the hospital, but Ellie refused. “This is God’s way of putting me out of my misery even sooner,” she told him. “I locked myself in my room and told him to come collect the body tomorrow.”
But Ellie didn’t die. Not that day, and not three to four months later.
That was four years ago. “I had all my blood work done. We tested everything. I’m so healthy.”
She believes the bees, and their venom, saved her life.
The idea that venom toxins that cause harm may also be used to heal is not new. Bee venom has been used as a treatment in East Asia since at least the second century BCE.
“Over millions of years, these little chemical engineers have developed a diversity of molecules that target different parts of our nervous system,” says Dr Ken Winkel, former director of the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne. “This idea of applying these potent nerve toxins to somehow interrupt a nervous disease has been there for a long time. But we haven’t known enough to safely do that.”
The practical application of venoms in modern therapeutics has been minimal. That is until the past ten years or so, according to Professor Glenn King at the University of Queensland. In 1997, when Ellie was bouncing around from doctor to doctor, King was studying the venom of the deadly Australian funnel-web spider. He’s now at the forefront of venom drug discovery.
Over the course of the 20th century, suggested venom treatments for a range of diseases have appeared in scientific and medical literature. Venoms have been shown to fight cancer, kill bacteria and even serve as potent painkillers – though many have only gone as far as animal tests.
The more we learn about venoms that cause such awful damage, the more we realise, medically speaking, how useful they can be. Like melittin in bee venom.
Melittin does not only cause pain. In the right doses, it punches holes in the protective membranes of cells, causing them to explode. But at higher concentrations, melittin molecules can group together into rings creating large pores in membranes, weakening a cell’s protective barrier and causing the entire cell to swell and pop like a balloon.
Because of this, melittin is a potent antimicrobial, fighting off a variety of bacteria and fungi with ease. And scientists are hoping to capitalise on this action to fight diseases such as HIV, cancer, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Ellie is the first to admit that her tale sounds a little tall. “If someone were to have come to me and said, ‘Hey, I’ll sting you with some bees, and you’ll get better,’ I would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’” But she has no doubts now.
After the attack, Ellie waited for anaphylaxis to set in, but it didn’t. Instead, three hours later, her body was racked with pain. A trained scientist, Ellie thinks this wasn’t part of an allergic response, but instead indicated a Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction – her body was being flooded with toxins from dying bacteria.
For three days, she was in pain. Then, she wasn’t.
“I had been living in this… I call it a ‘brown-out’ because it’s like you’re walking around in a half-coma all the time with the inflammation of your brain from the Lyme,” she explains. “My brain just came right out of that fog. I thought: I can actually think clearly for the first time in years.”
With a now-clear head, Ellie started wondering what had happened. So she did what anyone else would do: Google it. Disappointingly, her searches turned up very little. But she did find one small 1997 study by scientists at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, who’d found that melittin killed Borrelia. Exposing cell cultures to purified melittin, they reported that the compound completely inhibited Borrelia growth. When the scientists looked more closely, they saw that shortly after melittin was added, the bacteria were paralysed. Soon after, those membranes began to fall apart, killing the bacteria.
Convinced by her experience and the research she found, Ellie decided to try apitherapy, the therapeutic use of materials derived from bees.
Her bees live in a ‘bee condo’ in her apartment. She doesn’t raise them herself; instead, she mail orders, receiving a package once a week. To perform the apitherapy, she uses tweezers to grab a bee and press it gently where she wants to be stung.
She started on a regimen of ten stings a day, three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Four years and several thousand stings later, Ellie seems to have recovered. Slowly she reduced the number of stings and their frequency – just three stings over an eight-month period. She keeps the bees around just in case.
Modern science has gradually begun to take apart venoms piece by piece to understand how they do the things they do, both terrible and tremendous. Most venoms are complex cocktails of compounds, containing dozens to hundreds of different proteins, peptides and other molecules. Each compound has a different task that allows the venom to work with maximum efficiency – many parts moving together to immobilise, induce pain, or do whatever it is that the animal needs its venom for.
Venoms are mixtures of specifically targeted toxins rather than single toxins and this makes them rich sources of potential drugs – that’s all a drug is, a compound that has a desired effect on our bodies. The more specific the drug’s action the better, as that means fewer side effects.
“It was in the 2000s that people started saying [venoms] are complex molecular libraries, and we should start screening them against specific therapeutic targets as a source of drugs,” says King.
Of the seven venom-derived pharmaceuticals on the international market, the most successful, captopril, was derived from a peptide found in the venom of the Brazilian viper (Bothrops jararaca). This venom has been known for centuries for its potent blood-thinning ability – one tribe is said to have coated their arrow tips in it to inflict maximum damage – and the drug has made its parent company more than a billion dollars and become a common treatment for hypertension.
Dr Bryan Fry, a colleague of King’s at the University of Queensland and one of the world’s most prolific venom researchers, says the captopril family and its derivatives still command a market worth billions of dollars a year. Not bad for something developed in the 1970s. “It’s not only been one of the top 20 drugs of all time,” he says, “it’s been one of the most persistent outside of maybe aspirin.”
Rare cases like Ellie’s are a reminder of the potent potential of venoms. But turning folk knowledge into pharmaceuticals can be a long and arduous process. “It could take as long as ten years from the time you find it and patent it,” says King. “And for every one that you get through, ten fail.”
Since the 1997 study, no-one had looked into bee venom as a potential cure for Lyme disease, until Ellie.
There’s a long way to go for bee venom and melittin. And it takes a lot of work – and money – to turn a discovery into a safe, working medicine. King believes that scientists are entering a new era of drug discovery.
No-one knows exactly how many venomous species exist. There are venomous jellyfish, snails, insects – even venomous primates. With that, however, comes a race against time of our own making. Species are going extinct every year, and up to a third may go extinct from climate change alone.
“When people ask me what’s the best way to convince people to preserve nature, your weakest argument is to talk about how beautiful it is,” says Fry. Instead, he says, we need to emphasise the untapped potential that these species represent. “It’s a resource, it’s money. So conservation through commercialisation is really the only sane approach.”
Ellie couldn’t agree more. “We need to do a lot more research on these venoms, and really take a look at what’s in nature that’s going to help us.”
This is an abridged version of the article first published on mosaicscience.com on March 24, 2015