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article imageEssential Science: Venom from bees destroys breast cancer cells

By Tim Sandle     Sep 7, 2020 in Science
Venom from honeybees has been discovered to be effective at inactivating aggressive breast cancer cells, based on a series of laboratory studies. This paves the way for more in-depth assessment.
The research, which stems from Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, shows how venom from honeybees is capable of inducing cancer cell death. This is based on applying concentrations of the venom to hard to treat triple-negative breast cancer. What makes this therapy of interest is that the treatment appears to enact only minimal effect on healthy cells. Many chemical based cancer treatments (chemotherapy) carry the risk of attacking healthy cells as well as cancerous ones (especially cells that are regularly growing and dividing).
Honeybees
Honeybees are common flying insects within the genus Apis, known for producing large colonies and generating surplus production and storage of honey. One of the most common is the western honey bee (Apis mellifera).
Bees on a flower  taken near St Albans  UK.
Bees on a flower, taken near St Albans, UK.
Venom
The honey bee's venom is apitoxin. The venom contains different active components, such as melittin (a peptide, which triggers the pain sensation) and biologically active enzymes like phospholipase A2 (which triggers inflammation). The venom is a bitter colorless liquid which can cause local inflammation (such as when injected into human skin). There are similarities between honeybee toxin and sea nettle toxin.
Venom therapy
Many animal venoms are studied clinically, not only from the toxicological perspective but also for any therapeutic value they might possess. Honeybee venom is being studied to see if it can alleviate the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. It is also being considered or use as an immunotherapy for protection against allergies.
Cancer research
For several years, scientists have been looking at the role of melittin, the pore-forming peptide from Apis mellifera venom. Data suggests the venom extract exerts neoplastic activity on many types of cancer cell lines. Neoplastic diseases are conditions that cause tumor growth — both benign and malignant.
Wooden carving of a bee. St Albans  UK.
Wooden carving of a bee. St Albans, UK.
In addition to melittin, another honeybee venom constituent apamin also produces inhibitory effects on human telomerase leading to failed leukemic cell growth.
Latest research
The Australian researchers collected the venom from 312 honeybees from Perth, Ireland and England, and proceeded to examine the effect of the venom on all clinical subtypes of breast cancer. This included triple-negative breast cancer (a from of cancer for which there are far fewer treatment options).
The venom was found to be incredibly potent, with melittin being able to selectively and rapidly lower the viability of triple-negative breast cancer cells. The mechanism of action was by melittin suppressing the activation of a receptor that is overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer. This is called the epidermal growth factor receptor. In doing so, this reduces cancer cell replication.
Bumblebee on a flower. St Albans  UK.
Bumblebee on a flower. St Albans, UK.
Interestingly, as a comparator, bumblebee venom had no effect on the cancerous cells; the cancer-killing property is unique to the honeybee.
Next stage
For the next part of the research, the science team are intending to work out the optimum method of delivery of melittin, plus a consideration of the well as toxicities and maximum tolerated doses for a patient.
Research paper
The new research is published in the journal Precision Oncology, with the research paper titled "Honeybee venom and melittin suppress growth factor receptor activation in HER2-enriched and triple-negative breast cancer".
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal’s long-running Essential Science series. Each week we present a new science finding, covering a diverse range of subjects.
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