Honeybee venom destroys breast cancer cells in less than 30 minutes, study finds
[Jun 9, 2023: Kim Polacek, APR, CPRC]
Dr. Marilena Tauro, a breast cancer researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center (CREDIT: Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research)
The cancer community is buzzing over a new study that says venom from bees can kill cancer cells.
The European honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been the source of a number of products used medicinally by humans, such as honey, propolis, and venom for thousands of years. However, the molecular determinants of the anticancer activity of bee venom remain poorly understood, particularly in breast cancer, the most common cancer in women worldwide.
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.
The active component of honeybee venom is melittin, comprising half of honeybee venom by dry weight. Melittin is a positively charged, amphipathic 26-amino-acid peptide that associates with the phospholipids of the membrane bilayer, causing cell death by forming ~4.4 nm-diameter transmembrane toroidal pores that may enable the internalization of additional small molecules with cytotoxic activities.
Scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia tested venom from more than 300 honeybees and bumblebees against two types of aggressive, hard to treat breast cancer: triple negative and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) enriched. They found that a compound in the venom called melittin could destroy breast cancer cells within an hour, without causing harm to other cells.
As the active component of honeybee venom, melittin is a positively charged, amphipathic 26-amino-acid peptide. Researchers found it was able to target cancer cells by shutting down the activity of molecules overexpressed in these cancers. They also found that when used in conjunction with chemotherapy drugs, the melittin helped formed pores in the cancer cell membrane which could potentially allow therapies to better penetrate the cells.
While the tests for this study were only done in a lab setting, the researchers believe the compound can be synthetically reproduced as a treatment for breast cancer.
Dr. Marilena Tauro, a breast cancer researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center, says while the discovery is impressive, more research would need to be done before it could become a viable therapy.
“The good news is this study has shown that melittin can disrupt signaling pathways in breast cancer cells that are responsible for growth and spread of the disease,” she said. “However, there have been many studies where compounds have proved successful at killing cancer cells in the lab or animal models, but it has taken many years for those discoveries make it to patients, if at all.”
Tauro added that approximately half of all current drugs are derived from natural products, which demonstrates the potential of using bee venom for drug discovery.
A compound in the venom called melittin could destroy breast cancer cells within an hour. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)
“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 said.
Honey Bee Venom
There are around 20,000 species of bees: with the study looking at the European honeybee found in Australia, Ireland and England. The bee populations from each country produced almost identical effects in breast cancer cells.
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)
It also looked at the venom from bumblebees: but this did not have the same effect and was unable to induce cell death.
One of the first reports of the effects of bee venom was published in 1950, where venom reduced the growth of tumours in plants. Over the past two decades, interest in apitherapy has grown, as has interest in the effects on honeybee venom on different 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)
Despite this, the molecular mechanisms and selectivity of biomolecular components of honeybee venom as anticancer agents remain largely unknown – prompting the new study.
“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,” Say researchers.
For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.
Note: Materials provided above by the Kim Polacek, APR, CPRC. Content may be edited for style and length.
Like these kind of feel good stories? Get the Brighter Side of News' newsletter.