Once again, solutions from nature have been found in the fight against some of the world’s deadliest diseases. In a laboratory setting, Australian scientists say that venom from honeybees destroy aggressive breast cancer cells while keeping normal cells safe.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women all around the world. The exciting discovery presents another possible avenue of treatment in the battle against breast cancer.
The honeybee venom, and a compound in it called melittin, were used against triple-negative and HER2-enriched breast cancer – two types of breast cancer that are hard to treat. Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 10–15% of breast cancers. It is one of the most aggressive breast cancer types, and has been traditionally treated with surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.
Published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Precision Oncology, the research conducted by the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia tested venom from over 300 honeybees and bumblebees. According to Ciara Duffy, the 25-year-old PhD researcher who led the study, the honeybee extracts were found to be “extremely potent.” Within an hour, one concentration of the venom was found to kill 100% of cancer cells, with minimal harm to the other cells.
However, the toxicity increased for other dosage levels. The researchers also found that on its own, the melittin compound was capable of disrupting the growth of cancer cells. Previous research has found bee venom to have anti-cancer properties for other types of cancer such as melanoma.
Duffy explained that no one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells. Conducting the study as part of her PhD research, Duffy extracted the venom by putting the bees to sleep with carbon dioxide.
The bees were kept on ice to allow the venom barb to be pulled from the bee’s abdomen. The venom was then extracted by careful dissection. Venom extracted from 312 honeybees and bumblebees were investigated for their anti-cancer properties and effect on the clinical sub-types of breast cancer, including types with limited treatment options.
In her study, Duffy reported that the melittin could substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells that are essential to cancer cell growth and cell division within 20 minutes. The same compound could also completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.
The study also aimed to determine if melittin can be used in combination with existing chemotherapy drugs in treating highly aggressive types of breast cancer. The research found that melittin forms holes in breast cancer membranes, which potentially enables treatments to enter the cell and enhance cancer cell death.
According to Duffy, the technique of combining melittin and docetaxel (a chemotherapy medication) was extremely efficient in reducing tumor growth in mice.
Peter Klinken, the Chief Scientist of Western Australia, described the research as “incredibly exciting.” He said, “Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signalling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication.
It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases.” He and other medical researchers, however, caution that it is too early to hail bee venom as an anti-cancer drug.
Melittin, which naturally occurs in honeybee venom, can be synthetically produced. However, while thousands of chemical compounds can fight cancer in the laboratory, scientists say that few can be reproduced as treatment for humans.
Associate Prof Alex Swarbrick of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney stated, “It’s very early days. Many compounds can kill a breast cancer cell in a dish or in a mouse. But there’s a long way to go from those discoveries to something that can change clinical practice.”
Researchers say that more work is necessary to see if the bee venom can work large-scale as an actual cancer-fighting drug. However, it presents a new horizon and new hope for improved treatment against breast cancer, a disease that has been plaguing women for generations.