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Cancer breakthrough: Honeybee venom can destroy breast cancer in under 30 minutes

[Sept. 11, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

A compound in the venom called melittin could destroy breast cancer cells within an hour. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

A groundbreaking new study has uncovered a promising avenue in cancer research - using bee venom to target and kill cancer cells. This startling discovery, currently making waves in the medical community, could potentially reshape the future of cancer treatment.

The humble European honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been a cherished partner to humankind for millennia, offering us an array of beneficial byproducts like honey, propolis, and venom. Now, scientists are taking a closer look at these extraordinary insects, diving deep into the molecular structure of bee venom, particularly as it pertains to the battle against the most prevalent form of cancer affecting women worldwide: breast cancer.


The study's purpose is to gain an in-depth understanding of the molecular specifics and target specificity of bee venom against cancer cells. This knowledge will become the bedrock for the development and optimization of potent new therapeutics, harnessing a resource that's not only abundantly available but also economically feasible for production in various communities globally.

The study zeroes in on melittin, the active component in honeybee venom, which makes up half of the venom's dry weight. Melittin is a 26-amino-acid peptide that carries a positive charge. Its amphipathic properties allow it to interact with the phospholipids present in the membrane bilayer, resulting in the death of the cell.


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This peptide accomplishes this feat by forming toroidal pores with diameters of approximately 4.4 nm within the cell membrane, potentially allowing other cytotoxic small molecules to penetrate the cell.

In a compelling display of the convergence of nature and scientific exploration, researchers at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia undertook the monumental task of testing venom sourced from over 300 honeybees and bumblebees. The venom was used against two notoriously aggressive and challenging-to-treat types of breast cancer: triple negative and HER2 enriched.


The scientists discovered that melittin, this potent compound from the venom, had the capability to obliterate breast cancer cells in a mere hour, remarkably leaving other cells unharmed.

Melittin doesn't stop there; this multifaceted peptide also has the ability to target and deactivate molecules that are overexpressed in cancer cells, effectively stalling the malignant growth. Moreover, researchers found that combining melittin with chemotherapy drugs facilitated the formation of pores in the cancer cell membrane, potentially enhancing the ability of therapies to infiltrate these stubborn cells.


While the study's experimental phase was strictly conducted in a laboratory setting, the implications of these findings hint at a promising future where synthetically reproduced melittin could potentially become a standard treatment for breast cancer.

Dr. Marilena Tauro, a breast cancer researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center (CREDIT: Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research)

Reacting to these findings, Dr. Marilena Tauro, a breast cancer researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center, conveyed cautious optimism. "The good news is this study has shown that melittin can disrupt signaling pathways in breast cancer cells that are responsible for the growth and spread of the disease," she commented. She added a note of caution, saying that the journey from lab discovery to patient application is often long, and not all lab successes translate into viable treatments.


In defense of the therapeutic potential of natural products, Tauro further stated that approximately half of all current drugs are derived from natural products, showcasing the enormous potential of using bee venom for drug discovery. "Nature is a great supplier of active elements and chemical synthesis has made it possible to provide many drugs of natural origin in the dosage required for therapeutic use, despite the often very limited supply from their original sources," she emphasized.

Scanning electron microscopy of SUM159 cells treated with the IC50 of honeybee venom (5.58 ng/µL) and the IC50 of melittin (4.24 ng/µL) over 1 h, with two representative images shown for each treatment group. The white outline in the top images indicates the respective regions of each cell in the bottom images. Scale bars represent 10 µm (top row) and 200 nm (bottom row). Data are represented as mean ± SEM (n = 3). Differences were considered significant at p < 0.05 (*), p < 0.01 (**), and p < 0.001. (CREDIT: Nature Precision Oncology)

The study analyzed the European honeybee species found in Australia, Ireland, and England, with almost identical effects observed in the breast cancer cells across all three locations. Interestingly, despite there being around 20,000 species of bees, the study found that the venom of bumblebees did not exhibit similar cytotoxic effects.


The intriguing effects of bee venom were first reported in 1950, where it was found to inhibit the growth of tumors in plants. Over the subsequent decades, interest in apitherapy has steadily grown, alongside the curiosity surrounding the effects of honeybee venom on various cancers.

Representative bioluminescence imaging (BLI) of T11-luciferase tumors in mice at days 4, 10, 12, and 14 post inoculation of the cells. (CREDIT: Nature Precision Oncology)

However, despite this interest, the molecular mechanics and selectivity of biomolecular components of honeybee venom as anti-cancer agents have largely remained elusive, thus underscoring the significance of this new research. As the researchers reiterated, "Understanding the molecular basis and specificity of bee venom against cancer cells is key for developing and optimizing novel effective therapeutics from a natural product that is widely available and cost-effective to produce in many communities around the world.”


While the journey from discovery to practical application may indeed be a long one, this study provides hope for millions of people across the globe. It sparks excitement about the possibilities that the natural world holds for us in the battle against cancer, and emphasizes the importance of continued research in this field. Undoubtedly, the buzz surrounding this research is well-deserved, marking a new era in our understanding and application of natural resources in the fight against cancer.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by the The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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