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Honeybee venom rapidly kills aggressive breast cancer cells, as per new study

The findings could lead to the development of a treatment for triple-negative breast cancer which accounts for 10-15% of all breast cancers.

Honeybee venom rapidly kills aggressive breast cancer cells, as per new study
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

A new study out of Australia has found that honeybee venom can rapidly kill aggressive and hard-to-treat breast cancer cells. According to ABC, the study—published in the journal Nature Precision Oncology on Tuesday—also found that when combined with existing chemotherapy drugs, the venom's active component, melittin, was extremely efficient at reducing tumor growth in mice. The potentially-groundbreaking research was conducted at Perth's Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research by Dr. Ciara Duffy as part of her Ph.D. and could lead to the development of a treatment for triple-negative breast cancer.



Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 10-15% of all breast cancers but currently has no clinically effective targeted therapies. Dr. Duffy hopes her research will change that as the honeybee venom has proven extremely potent. "We found that the venom from honeybees is remarkably effective in killing some of these really aggressive breast cancer cells at concentrations which aren't as damaging to normal cells," she said. To conduct the study, Dr. Duffy harvested venom from honeybee hives at the University of Western Australia, Ireland, and England, by putting the bees to sleep with carbon dioxide and keeping them on ice before extracting the venom and injecting it into the tumors.



"Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world," she said. "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," Dr. Duffy wrote in the study, reports AJC. She explained that melittin—a positively charged, amphipathic 26-amino-acid peptide—has demonstrated antitumoral effects in melanoma, glioblastoma, leukemia, and ovarian, cervical, and pancreatic cancers.



"We found both honeybee venom and melittin significantly, selectively and rapidly reduced the viability of triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells," she wrote. "The venom was extremely potent." Researchers reproduced the melittin synthetically and found that it not only mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of the honeybee venom but also had another powerful effect within 20 minutes. "What melittin does is it actually enters the surface or the plasma membrane and forms holes or pores and it just causes the cell to die," Dr. Duffy explained. "We found it was interfering with the main messaging or cancer-signaling pathways that are fundamental for the growth and replication of cancer cells." i.e, Melittin was able to substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells that are essential to cancer cell growth and cell division.



"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," she told Medical Xpress. "Melittin modulated the signaling 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."



Dr. Duffy also studied the effect of melittin used in combination with existing chemotherapy drugs and found that the holes caused by the melittin in breast cancer membranes allowed the chemotherapy to enter the cell, thus working extremely efficiently in reducing tumor growth in mice. Speaking of the promising findings, Western Australia's Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken said: "I think it's incredibly exciting that they've made this observation that the molecule melittin can actually affect the cancer cells, but that it can work in combination with other drugs which come from natural products as well, and in combination, they're really knocking these cancer cells on the head."


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