Venom from honeybees, but not bumblebees, has the potential to help fight breast cancer, new Australian research suggests.
In trials at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth, the “extremely potent” venom rapidly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells, with minimal effect on healthy cells.
Melittin – a positively charged peptide in the venom – also was able to substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells that are essential to cancer cell growth and cell division, destroying cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.
Melittin reproduced synthetically was found to mirror the majority of the anti-cancer effects of venom.
“We looked at how honeybee venom and melittin affect the cancer signalling pathways, the chemical messages that are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction, and we found that very quickly these signalling pathways were shut down,” says lead researcher Ciara Duffy.
“Melittin modulated the signalling in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor that is commonly overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer, the epidermal growth factor receptor, and it suppressed the activation of HER2, which is over-expressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer.”
Further studies will be needed to formally assess the optimum method of delivery of melittin, as well as toxicities and maximum tolerated doses.
In her study, Duffy tested venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees from Western Australia, Ireland and England on different types of breast cancer cells.
Honeybees from the three countries produced almost identical effects in breast cancer, but bumblebee venom was unable to induce cell death even at very high concentrations.
A specific concentration of honeybee venom can induce 100% cancer cell death, Duffy says, while having minimal effects on normal cells.
She also tested to see if melittin could be used with existing chemotherapy drugs.
“We found that melittin can be used with small molecules or chemotherapies, such as docetaxel, to treat highly-aggressive types of breast cancer. The combination of melittin and docetaxel was extremely efficient in reducing tumour growth in mice.”
The ability of bee venom to reduce the growth of tumours in plants was first reported in the journal Nature 70 years ago, but it is it only in the past two decades, Duffy says, that attention has turned to its possible effect on different cancers.
“No-one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all of the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells.”
The research is described in a paper in the journal Nature Precision Oncology.
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