Researchers discover bee venom can kill stubborn breast cancer cells.
Honeybee venom has along been used as an alternative treatment for pain and other ailments in many areas of the world. Now, in recent studies, scientists found the venom quickly kills off two types of difficult to treat breast cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women.
The two aggressive types of breast cancers effected, known as triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer, are associated with poor prognoses because they are often immune to existing medical treatments. Yet, the active component, melittin, can eliminate cancer tumors, including melanoma, lung, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers.
Scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the University of Western Australia, both in Perth, discovered the phenomenon. They published their findings in the journal Precision Oncology.
“The venom was extremely potent,” explained Dr. Ciara Duffy, lead study author. “We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes. We looked at how honeybee venom and melittin affect the cancer signaling pathways, the chemical messages that are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction, and we found that very quickly these signaling pathways were shut down.”
HER2-enriched cancer cells and some triple-negative breast cancers grow uncontrollably because they have large numbers of receptors that promote this growth. The team found melittin restricts the activation of receptors for growth factors in the cells’ membrane, thus stifling the cells from spreading.
The scientists hypothesized that because the ingredient creates holes in cell membranes, it might also allow chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells. The team treated triple-negative breast cancer in mice with a combination of melittin and docetaxel. The results were more effective at shrinking tumors than either docetaxel or melittin alone. Because chemo tends to lead to unsettling side effects, physicians could use the combination of the two to reduce these systems. What’s more, honeybee venom is relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. Of course, those allergic to honeybees should not pursue this treatment.
Prof. Peter Klinken, chief scientist of Western Australia, said, “This is an incredibly exciting observation that melittin, a major component of honeybee venom, can suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells, particularly triple-negative breast cancer. Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signaling 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.”
“Honeybee venom is available globally and offers cost effective and easily accessible treatment options in remote or less developed regions. Further research will be required to assess whether the venom of some genotypes of bees has more potent or specific anticancer activities, which could then be exploited,” the team concluded.
Previous studies did reveal the venom damaged healthy cells, although the present research did not. The team noted that practitioners pursuing this strategy show target only cancerous cells to ensure healthy ones are left unharmed.