Honeybee venom can kill aggressive breast cancer cells: study

If their critical contribution to agriculture wasn’t enough to convince humans to save the bees, perhaps this will help sweeten the pot.

Researchers in Western Australia have discovered that venom from honeybees is a powerful anti-tumor agent, annihilating a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer cells at a staggering rate in mice subjects.

The potentially groundbreaking study, just published in the journal NPJ Precision Oncology, was undertaken by scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth.

“We found that the venom from honeybees is remarkably effective in killing some of these really aggressive breast cancer cells at concentrations that aren’t as damaging to normal cells,” said lead researcher Ciara Duffy.

Duffy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she hoped the findings would hold promise for the 10-15% of women who suffer from triple-negative breast cancer — meaning patients whose disease lacks all three common cancer-drug receptors, which includes the hormones estrogen and progesterone, as well as the human epidermal growth factor, called HER2, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain. Typically, these receptors might aid doctors’ fight against tumor growth through the use of targeted therapies, which help to spare patients from the full-body ravages of chemotherapy. The five-year relative survival rate for the most progressive cases can be as little as 11%, according to the American Cancer Society.

However, the new study has revealed a precise ratio of venom that can kill 100% of triple-negative, as well as HER2-positive, breast cancer cells.

These aren’t just any bees, the Australian researchers claim. Perth bees are “some of the healthiest in the world,” said Duffy, who supplemented the local hive’s population with bees from Ireland and England. To take their nectar, the bees are induced to sleep by carbon dioxide, then preserved on ice, after which the venom is extracted and injected directly into the tumor.

But rather than suggesting a large-scale harvest of honeybees’ venom, Duffy’s team discovered that a known chemical analog of a peptide in the venom called melittin — the component, in fact, that’s responsible for the pain incurred just after a bee sting — had the same anti-cancer effects.

“What melittin does is it actually enters the surface, or the plasma membrane, and forms holes or pores and it just causes the cell to die,” said Duffy, who further found that the molecule may also facilitate the impact of chemotherapy drugs, such as docetaxel. When combined, she explained, the melittin would first puncture the cancer membrane, permitting chemo better entry into the malignant mass.

The scientists also observed that melittin’s benefits echoed beyond its target to hinder future reproduction of triple-negative and HER2 cancer cells.

“We found it was interfering with the main messaging or cancer-signaling pathways that are fundamental for the growth and replication of cancer cells,” she said.

Globally, honeybees have long been under threat, despite efforts to boost their populations. Nevertheless, bee products have been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes for thousands of years thanks to their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and antioxidant properties.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Duffy was reticent to call it a “breakthrough.”

“There’s a long way to go in terms of how we would deliver it in the body and, you know, looking at toxicities and maximum tolerated doses before it ever went further,” she said.

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