A team of Australian scientists has conducted lab work using honeybee venom with encouraging results; the venom, they discovered, has the capacity to halt the growth of aggressive breast cancer cells.
Dr. Ciara Duffy, study leader and PhD researcher at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia, told the BBC that the 312 venom extracts collected were “extremely potent.” One sample destroyed its target cancer cells within just 60 minutes.
The study, published on Sept. 1 in peer-reviewed journal “NPJ Precision Oncology,” targeted two strains of hard-to-treat, aggressive breast cancers: triple-negative and HER2-enriched. Typically, these cancers are treated via surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.
“I began with collecting Perth honeybee venom,” Duffy explained to Medical Xpress. “Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world.
“The bees were put to sleep with carbon dioxide and kept on ice,” she continued, “before the venom barb was pulled out from the abdomen of the bee and the venom extracted by careful dissection.”
While venom from European honeybees in Australia, Ireland, and England effected almost identical cancer cell disruption, bumblebee venom was “unable to induce cell death,” even when utilized in high concentrations.
The honeybee venom’s active melittin compound—the major pain-producing substance in bee venom—was also effective in disrupting cancer cell growth when used in isolation, without harming the surrounding cells. Duffy’s team found that the lab’s synthetically produced melittin was able to replicate the majority of the potent anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom, too.
The research team expressed their collective excitement but clarified that further testing is needed to find out whether the compound can be produced as a drug for human patients.
On Sept. 2, Western Australia’s chief scientist, Prof. Peter Klinken, hailed the research team’s findings as “incredibly exciting.”
“Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signalling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication,” he explained to the British news outlet. “It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases.”
Associate Prof. Alex Swarbrick, from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, echoed Klinken’s excitement while sharing some reservation about the prospects for the development of a human drug.
“Many compounds can kill a breast cancer cell in a dish or in a mouse,” he commented. “But there’s a long way to go from those discoveries to something that can change clinical practice.”
Honeybee venom has been used in medicine for thousands of years and has even been used in previous cancer studies; melittin is already known to have the capacity to shrink tumors in melanoma, glioblastoma, and leukemia, as well as ovarian, cervical, and pancreatic cancers. Aggressive breast cancers remain relatively uncharted territory.
Beside skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in the United States, according to Breastcancer.org. Roughly 1 in 8 women, or 12 percent of the female population, will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
Duffy remains optimistic about the scope of possibility for using bee venom in the battle against breast cancer and agrees that further research is paramount. “Understanding the molecular basis and specificity of bee venom against cancer cells is key for developing and optimizing novel effective therapeutics,” she wrote in the study’s findings.
The beauty of bee venom, Duffy explained, is that it’s “widely available” as a natural product and “cost-effective to produce in many communities around the world.”
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